Books on Science and Religion #28: Atheism for Dummies

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.


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28 thoughts on “Books on Science and Religion #28: Atheism for Dummies

  1. Darwin’s evolutionary mechanism might have been designed, but not necessarily, plenty of biologists think it could have arisen just naturally. So it does not prove the existence of God. Of course it does not disprove it either. So I continue to be no longer atheist, but an agnostic.

  2. Hi Tom:

    Good to hear from you!

    You wrote:

    Darwin’s evolutionary mechanism might have been designed, but not necessarily, plenty of biologists think it could have arisen just naturally. So it does not prove the existence of God. Of course it does not disprove it either. So I continue to be no longer atheist, but an agnostic.

    It’s widely believed, even among biologists and philosophers who really should know better – that Darwin provided a naturalistic explanation, a scientific explanation – of how humans came into being that overrode a previously existing religious explanation for the origins of man. This belief is clearly a myth.

    Here’s why:

    1. There was – or is – no religious theory of how humans were created. If there was – or is – let’s hear it.

    There are a tremendous number of religions in the world – Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, folk religions – in addition to the Christian religion. There is no single creation story common to them all, or even common to the diverse sects composing one of them. Rather, there are a diversity of stories and a diversity of interpretations of those stories. And what’s more, creation stories are just stories, not meant to be scientific articles of faith somehow formed at a time when science didn’t even exist. (Interestingly, though, the Christian creation story is so close to the modern scientific one that one can’t help wonder if its format was carried over.)

    When folks like Dawkins or Huxley – or those who want to draw a distinct line between science and religion – refer to this issue, they are referring to William Paley’s persuasive 1802 Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity and the watchmaker analogy, an approach that appealed to some intellectuals and leaders of thought in Britain and the United States in the early 19th century. It probably set Darwin on his quest to understand evolution. But this was a very particular doctrine at a very particular time among a very particular group of people of elite English (or in some cases American) background and obviously not the pronouncement of a universal parliament of religions or anything even approaching anything like that.

    2. Sophisticated religions – as opposed to folk belief – and their texts refer to God, not infrequently, as the creator. But they don’t say how creation was carried out. Modern science is the study of the processes behind things, i.e., the means by which creation is indeed carried out. And note that modern science was brought into existence by Muslims and Christians who believed both that God was a lawgiver who created the laws that brought the creation into being and that God made those laws knowable so we could learn about them (Christianity incorporated much of the Hellenistic world view that underlay original “rational” thinking and Islam added sophisticated mathematical and experimental techniques to the mix, often borrowing details from India.)

    3. The distinction between the natural and created by the laws of God – i.e., laws created by God – is an artificial and meaningless one when it comes to science. Natural laws are God’s laws. So there is no basis for saying that a scientific explanation contradicts one based on God’s creativity. (Where the distinction comes in is in other areas. We are urged by Christ to be loving and kind to all people – that is God’s law. We should be suspicious of people and show our strength, killing them if necessary. That’s natural law – social Darwinism.)

    4. And then there is the question of design. Many British thinkers in Darwin’s time were still in thrall to Newton’s magnificent “clockwork” vision of the unity of science and religion with its crystal clear laws of cause and effect. And they lived in a country that was in the midst of a scientific and engineering revolution that Newton helped bring about. So, design tended to mean something like “obviously distinct and different than the natural world.” The idea of the watch catches this image – a watch found on the heath clearly has origins otherwise than the natural processes found at work in the heath – it had to be artificially designed. But this was only one way of looking at the argument.

    Another way of looking at the argument is to look at the heath (I use the term ‘heath’ because Paley’s argument uses it). How did the heath get there? The answer is that the same natural processes that Newton unveiled as the fundamental laws of physics were also at play in bringing about the heath. That is a simple – and obvious – extrapolation of Paley’s argument – and these laws of physics are due to God. And of course, many leading thinkers realized that. But materialism was in the ascendency and those realizations were often drowned out.

    What Darwin did in his explanation of evolution is to use another design argument, a much older one, a pre-scientific one, and then he fit it to the obvious diversity of species and the emerging understanding of the ancient age of the earth. Genius stuff. But, he was only an amateur when it came to philosophy and by family inclination an atheist, and he seems to have been carried along by the accolades of those who saw him as a prophet of the ascendency of the sciences, failing to recognize the continuity of his approach to religion.

    The details are that Darwin adapted the pre-scientific process of animal and plant breeding as an explanation for the creation of the various species, including human. Plant and animal breeding, of course, was an essential aspect of the emergence of human society – nearly all of our foodstuffs, vegetable or animal, are the result of human selection processes as farmers select the best seeds for replanting and the best animals for different tasks from reproduction. Even domesticated dogs, we now believer, were adopted from wolves via such a mechanism. So, if you think that design can only be done by an engineer or industrialist, then you probably do not recognize the patient long-term selection processes that humankind has engaged in since time immemorial. But design it is – as any modern geneticist will tell you – and Darwin just said that the environment did the selection. And this simple point – that evolution invokes a design process – escapes lots and lots of people because they are so tied-up in those 19th century “certainties.”

    Of course it doesn’t prove that God exists – you have to look to the manifestations of God – Jesus, Muhammad, Baha’u’llah, the Buddha – for that. And it still isn’t going to be proven with mathematical certainty.


    1. Hi Stephen,
      Darwin was not by family inclination an atheist. He grew up a believing Christian, and then he converted to agnosticism.
      I am glad that you can see that your belief that evolution is designed by God, does not prove that God exists. And it is true that Jesus, Muhammad, and Baha’u’llah spoke about God. But Buddha did not speak about God, only about various gods. So I don’t see how we can look to Buddha, to prove God exists.

      1. Sorry, the above post is from me, Tom. I did not realize that it did not have my name on it, until I sent it, and I saw Anonymous as the author.

      2. Hi Tom:

        Darwin’s grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, a famous “freethinker” who had proposed many of evolutionary ideas that his grandson was to put on a more scientific footing, and his father, according to Wikipedia, was a freethinker too. While Darwin never agreed to the label of atheist – calling himself by newly invented word “agnostic” when asked late in his life – there is no doubt that his was a family that had a strong tradition of either not believing in the existence of God, or holding to what are now called deistic or similar views – a kind of vague, first cause, point of view close in spirit to atheism. So, yes his family inclination was atheist. He did think of becoming a clergyman, but that didn’t necessarily call for high standards of conviction in those times.

        Buddhism, which some people consider to be atheistic because it denied the multiplicity of Gods of the Indian religious world at the time of its appearance, does speak of a higher reality and clearly accepts ideas of moral causality – kharma and the like – which are similar to those which animate monotheism. Look up the “via negativa” as an approach to the truth through denying human-centric attributes to God and you may start to get the flavor of an eastern approach to religion and how it differs from a western monotheistic approachs. In my ten years in Japan, I was able to encounter this approach many times.


        1. Hi Stephen:
          Deism is monotheistic, so it is not that close to atheism, except of course that it teaches that God is no longer involved in the universe, so prayers to God are futile.
          Concerning Buddhism, I have read the most famous work ascribed to Buddha, the Dhammapada, and it never refers to God, as one exclusive God who is the only one, the word God, with capital G, is not found there. But there is a number of verses that refer to gods, plural. Also there are several verses that refer to a specific god, like Indra. Also in everything I have read about Buddhism, I have always read that Buddha taught that if your karma is quite OK, though not perfect, you can get reborn as a god, who is then likely to live very many years before dying and getting reborn again. Though I have not yet been able to find out if Buddha believed that all gods are mortal, or if any are immortal. For example verse 30 of Dhammapada says that Maghavan (another name for Indra) became lord of the gods. But it does not say if he will be always their lord.

          1. Hi Tom:

            One way to think about deism, probably the standard way to think about it, is as a kind of a halfway-house on the path from an embrace of religion to the rejection of religion. Yes, it maintains a belief in the existence of God – a kind of distant God that starts the universe, creates its laws, and then lets it run on its own momentum. Einstein, in that sense, was a deist. Voltaire, perhaps, was the most famous deist. He was also one of the people who did the most to undermine religion and set the stage for 19th century atheism.

            What deists rejected was pretty much everything except a belief in God, and given that everything else was the most of it, that is quite a lot. For example, deists often rejected revelation and revealed religion, which meant that they rejected Christianity, the Bible, and its institutions. Given that Europe was once thorough-goingly Christian in every aspect of life from governance to music, that meant that deism was often a rejection of much of the structure of society and its institutions.

            So, if you are a deist and have rejected the Bible, all established religion, the need for prayer, worship, and the idea of a personal God, there is not much left over except a vague belief in God, a God that doesn’t do anything or require anything. It is but a simple, easy, and short step to discard that belief.


          2. That reminds me of The Universe Next Door (Fifth Edition is the latest) by James W. Sire. It’s a book on worldview a by their chornolgical popularity in the West. Each chapter is devoted to a different worldview.

            Christian Theism: A Universe Charged With The Granduer Of God
            Deism: The Clockwork Universe
            Naturalism: The Silence Of Finite Space
            Nihilism: Zero Point
            Existentialism: Beyond Nihilism
            Eastern Pantheistic Monism: Journey To The East
            New Age: A Seperate Universe
            Postmodernism: The Vanished Horizon
            Islamic Theism: A View From The Middle East

            In the book, he makes reference to the easy transition from Deism to Naturalism. He lists René Descartes, John Locke, and Julien Offray de la Mettrie as people of that translation period. That last one is best example of the transition between Deism and Naturalism.

            The book does have an overall Christian bias, but it was reccomended to me by someone who new I was interested in books on various worldviews. I do like the comprehnsivness and all the good endnotes as well as the quotes.

            A worldview answers these questions: What is prime reality, the really real? What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us? What is a human being? What happens to a person after death? Why is it possible to know anything at all? How do we know what is right and wrong? What is the meaning of human history? What personal, life-orientation core commitments are consistent with this worldview?

            Stephen, I reccomend the book for a future book review. It is also a good source for talking about the worldview of Naturalism as well as the other listed worldviews. Note: Existentialism has theistic and atheistic variants, so that chapter really gives you two worldviews in one chapter. Also, Postmodernism is a meta-worldview as well as a worldview. It basically the view that language constructs and determines meaning, thus worldviews are a product of language and language alone and therefore have no validity beyond being just stories. I can’t really remember if that is a good or bad summary of Postmodernism, because I’m not an expert on it.

            While Eastern Pantheistic Monism and Islamic Theism predate where there chapters are chronologically, they are put there by when Westerners started adopting said worldview chronologically.

            New Age and Postmodermism are too young as worldviews to see what their future are as yet. What impact will they have on the West? Will they grow in numbers and influence?

          3. Hi Stephen. “The Universe Next Door” by James W. Sire look like an excellent book. Want to review it? If so, I could help you write it and tweak the review, then put it up?

          4. Stephen, the book is good for review, but each chapter would deserve it’s own part in its own series. Also, have you read the book enough to help with the review? The fifth edition which is the only edition with the Islam chapter? I should note that I own the large print edition. Read What You Want: Your Customized Book is a company that makes large print versions of books.

            Chapter 1: Introduction: A World Of Difference
            Chapeter 2-10: Already listed in the previous post
            Chapter 11: The Examined Life

            Chapter 1 explains worldview as a concept. Chapter 11 is an end of the book examination of all the things in the book. Chapter 2-10 in the middle are in depth summaries of each worldview.

            Worldviews without their own chapters that are mentioned in the book.

            Aestheticism (Naturalism, but mentioned in the Examined Life Chapter instead)
            Animism (New Age)
            Atheistic Existentialism (Existentialism)
            Marxism (Naturalism)
            Secular Humanism (Naturalism)
            Theistic Existentialism (Existentialism)

            Fifth edition updates from the fourth and previous editions: A chapter on Islamic Theism, an eight worldview question in the chapter A World Of Difference, which of the eight worldview questions each wordview stance in each chapter answers, extensive quote blocks sections off in boxes, and any other changes I can’t think of.

            Introductory quotes for a feel of each worldview and the book.

            “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed. Why do men then not reck his rod?” Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur” quoted in page 17 of Chapter 2 Chrsitian Theism: A Universe Charged with the Grandeur of God

            “Say first, of God above or man below, What can we reason but from what we know? Of man what see we but his station here, From which to reason, or to which refer? Through worlds unnumbered though the God be known, ‘Tis ours to trace only in our own.” Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, quoted in page 54 of Chapter 3 Deism: The Clockwork

            “Without warning, David was visited by an exact vision of death: a long hole in the ground, no wider than your body, down which you were drawn while the white faces recede. You try to reach them but your arms are pinned. Shovels pour dirt in your face. There you will be forever, in an upright position, blind and silent, and in time no on will remember you, and you will never be called. As strata of rock shift, your fingers elongate, and your teeth are distended sideways in a great underground grimace indistinguishable from a strip of chalk. And the earth tumbles on, and the sun expires, an unfaltering darkness reigns where once there were stars.” John Updike, “Podgeom Feathers, quoted in page 85 of Chapter 4 Naturalism: The Silence of Finite Space

            “If I should cast off this tattered coat, And go free into the mighty sky; If I should find nothing there, But a vast blue, Echoless, ignorant – What then?” Stephen Crane, The Black Riders and Other Lines, quoted in page 127 of Chapter 5 Nihilism: Zero Point

            “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance. I leaned back and closed my eyes. The images, forewarned, immediately leaped up and filled my closed eyes with existences: existence is a fullness which man can never abandon…. I knew it was the World, the naked World suddenly revealing itself, and I chocked with rage at this gross absurd thing.” The character Roquentin from Jean Paul-Sartre, Nausea quoted in page 164 of Chapet 6 Existentialism: Beyond Nihilism

            “And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world…. The great song with thousand voices cosisted of one word: OM – perfection.” German Hesse, Siddhartha quoted in page 208 of Chpater 7 Eastern Pantheistic Monism: Journey to the East

            “We are Creating energy, matter, and life at the interface between the void and all known creation. We are facing into the known universe, crating it, filing it…. I am ‘one of the boys in the engine room pumping Creation from the void into the know universe; from the unknown to the known I am pumping'” John Lily, The Center of the Cyclone, quoted in page 245 of Chapter 8 New Age: A Seperate Universe

            “‘Whither is God,’ he [the madman] cried. ‘I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?…. Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?…. Do we not smell anything of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remians dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?…. I come too early,’ he said then; ‘my time has not come yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, stil wandering – it has not yet reached the ears of man.'” Friederich Nietzsche, “The Madman” quoted in page 313 of Chapter 9 Postmodernism: The Vanished Horizon

            “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Prophet of God.” Muslim Declaration of Faith quoted in page 356 of Chapter 10 Islamic Theism: A View from the Middle East

            Also, the divide between Mu’tazilites and Ash’arites are mentioned in the chapter on Islamic Theism.

            I would need first to figure out how many posts to divide the book review into.

          5. Hi Stephen Friberg:
            Yes, Deism rejects revelation, prayer and worship, so you are right that in these matters it is similar to atheism. But it is sharply different from atheism by believing in a supernatural creator, so they do accept the argument from design that claims to prove God’s existence.
            And you have not responded to my argument that Buddhism in general, and the Buddha in particular, did not believe in one God, but believed instead in a multiplicity of non-omnipotent gods.

          6. Hi, not Stephen here, but I field that question about Buddha fairly often so here’s my understanding of what Buddha taught about what He referred to as “the Absolute”, “the Lovely”, or “the First Element”.

            An important facet of understanding any religion is context. For example, Jesus Christ’s context was as the Messiah of the Jewish Faith. If one takes Christ out of His context with Judaism, there is no basis for understanding the concept of the Messiah, for it arises from the Old Testament books (esp. Daniel and Isaiah). This posed some interesting problems for the apostles when teaching non-Jews, but that’s a different subject. We see the importance of this context in Christ’s teaching, for it is Moses He quotes when explaining to His audience what is the greatest commandment. If Christ had said nothing else about the nature of God, we would know what His concept of God was by His connection with the teachings of Moses.

            Likewise, I believe it’s important to view Buddhism in context with the religious background in which it arose and with the revelations preceding it, for the teachings of Buddha are bound to those of the prior Avatars of the Vedic tradition (esp. Krishna) in a similar manner that Christ’s are bound to those of Moses. Buddha was born into a Hindu culture. As Christ’s discourses took up subjects from the Torah, so Buddha’s discourses are often based upon the Vedic scriptures. Moreover, He connects Himself to the previous Avatars or Buddhas very clearly: “The Buddhas who have been and who shall be: of these I am and what They did, I do,” He says.

            “In this auspicious eon, three leaders there have been. Kakasandha, Konagamana, and Kassapa too. I am now the perfect Buddha. And there will be Metteye too, before this same auspicious eon runs to the end of its years.” Anagata-Vamsa, p.34 (As Krishna was a member of the Kassapa tribe, it’s reasonable to assume that’s who Buddha is referring to there. That would indicate that Kakasandha and Konagamana might be Manu (Father of Mankind) and Rama. But the point is Buddha—like the other Manifestations of God—did not see Himself as an isolated incident or the founder of a completely random and new religious thread.)

            If you see the Prophets and Avatars as being part of a continuum as Buddha (and others) teach, then what a prior Manifestation says, unless directly changed, is foundational to the new Prophet’s message. This makes sense, yes? In a human school, each teacher builds on the knowledge given by the previous teacher. They are different individuals, but are teaching in the same school and share the same knowledge base. They don’t negate what prior teachers taught, but reveal a fuller understanding of it.

            Here’s what Krishna taught about the Oneness of God: “Those whose minds are ever serene win the victory of life on this earth. God is pure and ever one, and ever one they are in God.” Krishna, Bhagavad Gita 5:19

            And: “But beyond this creation, visible and invisible, there is an Invisible, higher, Eternal; and when all things pass away this remains for ever and ever. 21 This Invisible is called the Everlasting and is the highest End supreme. Those who reach him never return. This is my supreme abode.” (Bhagavad Gita 8:20-21)

            This is the context in which Buddha offers this: “The Element (or Cause) is without beginning in time. It is the common foundation of all dharmas. Because it exists there also exist all places of rebirth and the full attainment of Nirvana.” Ratnagotravibhaga pp. 72,73

            And this: “There is, O monks, an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed. Were there not, O monks, this Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, thre would be no escape from the world of the born, originated formed.” Udana 80-81

            He also claimed to be sent by Brahman, the same God that Krishna refers to as “the Supreme, the Eternal.”

            “What do you think, O Brahmins, of a man born in and brought up in Manasakata? Would he be in doubt about the most direct way from this spot to Manasakata?” “Certainly not, Gautama,” replied the Brahmins. “Thus,” stated the Buddha, “the Tathagata knows the straight path that leads to a union with Brahman. He knows it as one who has entered the world of Brahman and been born in it. There can be no doubt in the Tathagata.” Digha-nikaya 9:35

          7. I should note that I often have folks observe that Buddha said God didn’t exist or that God was irrelevant. What He actually says is that the question as to whether there was a God was irrelevant. I don’t have the reference on hand, but I’ll try to dig it out of my resource files.

            Here, too, context is important. Given the Buddha’s sayings above, it seems rational to view this assertion in the context of the existence of “the Absolute” or Brahman or whatever you wish to call THAT. Consider this: if God is, indeed, the only Absolute existence in the universe, then the question of whether He exists coming from contingent beings such as ourselves truly is irrelevant.

            As Buddha points out, if THAT did not exist, we would not be here in the realm of the Formed to ask the question or to wonder if there was escape from the realm of the Formed.

          8. Hi, Maya, thank you for your comments about Buddha and the quotes. Regarding the quotes, I would say it would depend on whether Buddha regarded the Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, or the THAT, as a personal God, or instead some impersonal eternal fact, like karma or dharma. The names he mentioned as previous Buddhas don’t make it very clear who they were. They could have been fictional names he thought up. It sure does not look like he could have read the Bhagavad Gita. According to Barbara Stoler Miller’s book Bhagavad Gita, it was written around the first century CE. According to Stephen Mitchell’s book Bhagavad Gita, some scholars date it as early as the fifth century BCE, others as late as the first century CE. Either way, centuries after Krishna is alleged to have lived, so one can’t depend on the quotes of Krishna in that book as having been accurate, and Buddha likely had not heard them anyway.

          9. Tom, the problems with her above info are several.

            One, actually Krishna was part of the Vrishni clan of the Yadava tribe, but she claims otherwise basically because an author from her religion wrote a book that Krishna, Rama, and Manu were three prior Buddhas based solely on the claim that the names of those Buddhas were references to the tribes they were from despite there being no Yadava Buddha or Vrishni Buddha.

            Two, she overlooks various passages of the Sutras that would contradict her interpretation of the above quotes. I have read the Pali Canon somewhat more, but my expertises is Mahayana Sutras and not the Pali Canon. For example, the Buddhist cosmology of 31 (or 33 or even as much as 40) worlds within samsara list the worlds of Brahman as being the 16-22 worlds between the frormless worlds and the desire worlds. While it uses the same language as Hinduism, the description of the Buddhist cosmology in the sutras explicitly deconstructs the beliefs of Hinduism. The Brahmajala Sutta (not to be confused with the Mahayana Brahmajala Sutra which deals with bodhisattva vows) says that Brahman is a being who is in samsara and just another sentient being like all other sentient being, but is more like a Demiurge in Gnosticism. It can refer to any sentient being not born or reincaranted (which is basically the same due to infinite past lives) into a desire realm in the most general sense. In the narrowest sense, it is what I said earlier. Also, he never claims to be sent by Brahman and actually debates Brahmna at several points in the Sutras showing Brahman to be ignorant of nirvana and things highers than his world in samsara.

            Buddhism is about achieving nirvana (escape from samsara), but the Buddha did teach how to achieve a favorable reincarnation sometimes for people who weren’t able to go for the high goal of nirvana. This also proves that the two quotes she gave from two Sutras are actually unrelated to each other.

            Back to previous Buddhas, the Buddhavamsa gives the biographies of all 27 previous Buddhas with lots of info like their caste, they brithplace, their tree they achieved enlighetnemnt under, and the previous life of the Buddha during their lifetime.

            Caste: Brahmin
            Birthplace: Khemavatinagara
            Parents: Agidatta and Visakha
            Tree: Airisa
            Previous life of most recent Buddha: Khema

            Caste: Brahmin
            Birthplace: Sobhavatingara
            Parents: Yannadatta and Uttara
            Tree: Udumbara
            Previous life of the most recent Buddha: Pabbata

            Caste: Brahmin
            Birthplace: Baranasingara
            Parents: Brahmadatta and Dhanavati
            Tree: Nigroda
            Previous life of the most recent Buddha: Jotipala

            Siddhartha Guatama Shakyamuni
            Caste: Kshatriya
            Birthplace: Lumbini
            Parents: Suddhodana and Mahamaya (or maybe just Maya as Maha is an honorific meaning great sometimes Seperate from one’s name and sometimes it is actually part of one’s given name so it varies)
            Tree: Pipal (Fig tree aka Ficus religiosa)
            Previous life not applicable due to being his current life

            For contrast

            Caste: Kshatriya
            Birthplace: Mathura
            Parents: Vasudeva and Vesaki

            Caste: Kshatriya
            Birthplace: Ayodhya
            Parents: Dasharatha and Kausalya

            You San obvious the merits of using multiple points rather than one tenous point in identifying if people are one person or two different people.

          10. Thanks, Stephen Kent Gray, for giving us the correct info about these past alleged Buddhas, that they can’t be Krishna or Rama or Manu, and for the info about what Buddha really thought about Brahman.
            I hope Maya will read this.

    2. Hi Stephen. I will try to get a copy of the book – I’ll have an audio version in three weeks – but I don’t need to have it to help you with it. Why don’ you start an overview of the book and we’ll go with that first.


      1. I have provided a rough draft below at the bottom of the comments section. I gave an overview of the first chapter and some of the last with an example from the Existentialism chapter as well.

        Interesting quote about the above Deism to Naturalism topic we were talking about for example.

        “One of the most interesting figures in this shift was Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751). In his own day La Mettrie was generally considered an atheist, but he himself says ‘Not that I call in question the existence of a supreme being; on the contrary it seems to me that the greatest degree of probability is in favor of this belief.’ Nonetheless, he continues, ‘it is a theoretic truth with little practical value.’ The areas on he can conclude the God’s existence is of so little practical value is that the God who exists is only the maker of the universe. He is not personally interested in it nor in being worshipped by anyone in it. So God’s existence can be effectively discounted as being of no importance.” Page 87

        Today the term apatheist or ignostic would apply. The former is apathy, disregard, lack of interest in the existence of God and viewing it as having no practical, pragmatic value. The latter is just ignoring it all.

        1. Weird form of deism, believed by de La Mettrie. He thought some God created the universe, but he not only does not interfere in it, he is not even personally interested in it. Why would he have created it, if he does not find its evolution interesting? Is he interested in nothing? Weird God.

          1. Not interfering with the world is the definition of where Theism and Deism conflict with each other. According to Deism, God greater worlds and universes like a watchmakers makes watches. After he makes a watch he moves on to making other watches and doesn’t care for the maintenance of ultimate fate of the watches beyond whatever mechanism built into the watch itself to take care for those issues. Those are defining traits of Deism rather than just his version of it.

          2. Well, a watchmaker might not care what happens to the watches he made, after all they are inanimate. A Deist God can choose not to interfere with the universe he or she made, but not caring about the beings there? That would be an uncaring God.

          3. Maybe a hit it and quit it deadbeat father would be a better analogy for the Deist conception of God.

      2. Stephen Frieberg, I was Binging around and found a PDF which might help you before you get the book.

        I was searching online for stuff on each specific worldview to bolster my future reviews and found the above great PowerPoint representation, but I won’t be using it for my reviews though. It’s just something nice to look at and with specific time data.

      3. Did you get the audio book or physical book yet? Also, how does my outline/review of the first chapter at the bottom look?

        I have more good quotes from the book for future outlines/reviews of other chapters in the book.

        If you have read and or listened to the book already, you can also tell me of your opinions of each chapter too. You can also tell me what more or what less what needed in the bottom of the comments sections review I posted on January 30. How far have you gotten in the book now? Which parts of the book did you like best? least?

  3. Thanks for the great article. I was must wondering if you perhaps meant ‘skewed’ instead of ‘skewered’:

    ” why does McGowan insist on such an uninformed and extremist literalist reading and thus such skewered interpretations?”


    1. Hi Ed:

      Thanks for the question! (You asked “I was must wondering if you perhaps meant ‘skewed’ instead of ‘skewered'”).

      I often write using homophones – things like “there” for “their”, etc. – and have to be alert to catch them when I’m spell-checking. I was first thinking that I wrote skewered for skewed, because skewed is a good fit for the sentence.

      But in thinking about it a little more, I remembered that I also meant skewered, which has the connotation of being run through, stabbed, butchered, being prepared for cooking, or the like. I was definitely thinking of that connotation when I wrote the sentence.

      I think I meant both!!


  4. A Basic Worldview Catalog: The Universe Next Door by James W. Sore is a book about worldviews. It covers various worldviews and compares them as opposed to his other book Naming the Elephant which discuses the concept of worldview itself as a concept.

    What is a worldview?

    “A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions that which may be true, partially, true, or entirely false) that we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.” Page 8

    That describes the concept, but doesn’t yet give the questions that each worldview answers. The definition alone only does so much, but it gives the questions involved that a worldview answers below.

    “1. What is the prime reality – the really real? To this we might answer; God, or the gods, or the material cosmos. Our answer here is the most fundamental. It sets the boundaries for the answers that can consistently be given to the other six questions. This will become clear as we move from worldview to worldview in the chapters that follow.

    2. What is the nature of external reality, that is the world around us? Here our answers point to whether we see the world as created or autonomous, as chaotic or orderly, as matter or spirit; or whether we emphasize our subjective, personal relationship to the world or its objectivity apart from us.

    3. What is a human being? To this we might answer: a highly complex machine, a sleeping god, a person made in the image of God, a naked ape.

    4. What happens to a person at death? Here we might reply: personal extinction, or transformation to a higher state, or reincarnation, or departure to a shadowy existence on “the other side.”

    5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? Sample answers include the idea that we are made in the image of an all-knowing God or that consciousness and rationality developed under the contingencies of survival in a long process of evolution.

    6. How de we know what is right and wrong? Again perhaps we are made in the image of a God whose character is food, or right and wrong are determined by human choice alone or what feels good, or the notions simply developed under an impetus toward cultural or physical survival.

    7. What is the meaning of human history? To this we might answer: to realize the purposes of God or the gods, to make a paradise on earth, to prepare people for a life in a community with a loving and holy God, and so forth.” Pages 12-13

    Those were the original seven questions from all the previous editions. I would like to point out I own the curent editions and several earlier ones from years ago when I first read the book in an earlier edition. The new question is added here seperately quoted for emphasis on it.

    “8. What personal, life-orientating core commitments are consistent with this worldview? With any given worldview, core commitmments may vary widely. For example, a Christian might say, to fulfill the will of God, or to seek first the kingdom of God, or to obey God and enjoy him forever, or to be devoted to knowing God or loving God. Each will lead to a somewhat different specific grasp of the Chirsitan worldview. A naturalist might say to realize their personal potential for experiencing life, or to do as much good as they can for others, or to live in a world of inner peace in a world of social diversity and conflict. The question and its answers reveal the variety of ways the intellectual commitments are worked out in individual lives. They recognize the importance of seeing one’s own worldview not only within the context of vastly different worldviews but within the community of one’s own worldivew. Each person, in other words, ends up having his or her own take on reality. And though it is extremely useful to identify the nature of a few (say, five to ten) generic worldviews, it is neccesary in identifying and assessing one’s own worldview to pay attention to its unique features, the most important of which is one’s own answer to this eighth question.” Pages 13-14

    Nine more chapters go on to examine worldviews in depth and the last chapters examines eveything in retrospect of all that written previously to examine life itself and the worldviews collectively.

    Each worldviews has a relations ship with the eight questions. They all have various simmilarities and differences in each question since there are so many ways that simmilar yet different ansepwers to the questions can be given or even widely diverge since each worldviews views is simmilar to some others while different from some other others in a unique and complex way.

    There wasn’t a question zero before the eight questions, but Postmodernism still gives an answer for that question anyway. None of the other worldviews deal with it.

    “The first question postmodernism addresses is not what there is or how we know what is there but how language functions to construct meaning. In other words, there has been a shift in ‘first things’ from being to knowing to constructing meaning.” Page 318

    That is related to none of the eight worldview questions, but that is the only time in the book where such a thing happens. It highlights how different Postmodernism is from all the other worldviews in that it is a worldview about worldviews rather than a worldview per se. It concerns itself mostly or even only with the construction of meaning. I’ll get to a review of that chapter later in the series, but that was a heads up for the curve ball that Postmodernism throws in the worldview department. Postmodernism only gives answers to quiet ions 3, 5, 6, 7, and 8 which means 1, 2, and 4 are ignored.

    The book starts with Christian Theism first because it dominated the West as the only world view till around the seventeenth century. Then, Deism because it is the worldview that arose in the West at that time. Then, Natrualism because it closely followed. Then, Nihilism and Existentialism because the soon followed as well. Then, East Pantheistic Monism because it was imported to the West around the middle of the twentieth century but was first exposed to the West at the end of the nineteenth. Then New Age, because it is a Western unique spin on it as a reaction to Eastern Pantheistic Monism which might as well be called Western Pantheistic Monism. Then, Postmodernism because it is another worldview that has arose in the West after that. Then, Islamic Theism because the West has mostly ignored that worldview until the twenty first century and recent events.

    “There is one worldview that offers both a firm intellectual foundation and a route out of such nihilism. For those who follow the decline of religious certitude thought its trek from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century, the way forward is not to go beyond nihilism. It is rather to return to an early fork in the intellectual road.

    It may seem strange to suggest that we throw off all modern and postmodern thought and return to the seventeenth century. But we should be reminded that Christiqn theism as I have defined it was culturally abandoned not because of its inner inconsistency or its failure to explain the facts, but because it was inadequately understood, forgotten completely, or not applied to the issues at hand. Moreover, not everyone abandoned theism three centuries ago. There remain at every level in society and in every discipline – in science and the humanities, in technology and the business world – those who take their Christian theism with complete intellectual seriousness and honesty.” Pages 421-422

    The author favors Christian Theism above all other worldviews, but it’s up to the reader to agree or disagree with him and fans of the other worldviews will obviously disagree.

    “Islam poses both an alternative and a Seperate challenge. Because it is based on a theistic notion of God as creator, sustainer, and revealer if the truths of reality, the most fundamental worldivew notion (the nature of ultimate reality) is simmilar to that of Chirstianity. Searchers for truth will need to look more intently at specific deatails of each worldview – possible internal inconsistencies and, especially, the differing conceptions of nature and character of Allah and the Biblical God, the historical nature for the nature and character of Jesus, and the reasons for the authority accorded to their two fundamental scriptures – the Bible and the Qur’an. This is a task that here must be left to you as readers.” Pages 420-421

    Here he recognizes that both Theism as worldview categories of both Christian Theism and Islamic Theism fulfill his idea of a worldview that is neither Nihilism or a failure to go beyond it in his eyes. So while reviewing each worldview in each chapter that summary at the end needs to be kept in mind for how the book deals with each worldview.

    Any ideas or questions about this rough draft of part one of the series on Worldviews?

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