Friday, October 26, 2007

What Atheists Kant Refute - Limits of Human Reason

Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and several other highly popular books, recently wrote The God Delusion, regarded as an anti-religious, atheist manifesto by some. I (Ira) am currently reading that book and plan to post a new Main Topic when I complete it.

In an email, Stu provided the following link "What atheists Kant refute" from the Christian Science Monitor. Dinesh D'Souza is interviewed regarding a series of anti-religious books by Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens. That led to an email exchange between Stu, Joel, Howard and Ira. Rather than limit that exchange to a small, private group, here is an edited version for the enjoyment of readers of this Blog. I hope it generates lots of cross-discussion!


Reason must know its limits in order to be truly reasonable.

Opinion editor Josh Burek talks with Dinesh D'Souza about atheism.

Religion has faced formidable foes in its history. But atheism hasn't generally been one of them – until today. A recent string of bestselling books has put believers of all stripes on the defensive. Religion, say authors such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, is an unreasonable form of blind faith, often leading to fanaticism and violence. Reason and science, they contend, are the only proper foundations for forming opinions and understanding the universe. Those who believe in God, they insist, are falling for silly superstitions.

This atheist attack is based on a fallacy – the Fallacy of the Enlightenment. It was pointed out by the great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant erected a sturdy intellectual bulwark against atheism that hasn't been breached since. His defense doesn't draw on sacred texts or any other sources of authority to which people of faith might naturally and rightfully turn when confronted with atheist arguments. Instead, it relies on the only framework that today's atheist proselytizers say is valid: reason. The Fallacy of the Enlightenment is the glib assumption that there is only one limit to what human beings can know – reality itself. This view says we can find out more and more until eventually there is nothing more to discover. It holds that human reason and science can, in principle, unmask the whole of reality.

In his 1781 "Critique of Pure Reason," Kant showed that this premise is false. In fact, he argued, there is a much greater limit to what human beings can know. Kant showed that human knowledge is constrained not merely by the unlimited magnitude of reality but also by a limited sensory apparatus of perception.

Consider a tape recorder. It captures only one mode of reality, namely sound. Thus all aspects of reality that cannot be captured in sound are beyond its reach. The same, Kant would argue, is true of human beings. The only way we apprehend empirical reality is through our five senses. But why should we believe, Kant asked, that this five-mode instrument is sufficient? What makes us think that there is no reality that lies beyond sensory perception?

... Notice that Kant's argument is entirely secular: It does not employ any religious vocabulary, nor does it rely on any kind of faith. But in showing the limits of reason, Kant's philosophy "opens the door to faith," as the philosopher himself noted.

Kant exposes the ignorant boast of atheists that atheism operates on a higher intellectual plane than theism. He shows that reason must know its limits in order to be truly reasonable. Atheism foolishly presumes that reason is in principle capable of figuring out all that there is, while theism at least knows that there is a reality greater than, and beyond, that which our senses and our minds can ever apprehend.


I agree with Dinesh D'Souza that our five senses are insufficient to apprehend the whole truth of the world. However, I don't trust our "faith" sense to fill in that lacuna reliably. D'Souza's book is titled What's So Great About Christianity, and, if it is a pean to traditional Christianity I don't necessarily think it will satisfy me. On the other hand, if he makes the point that religion in general (when not too fundamentalist or radical) is of net benefit to civilization, and that, via Christianity, civilization and society has been uplifted, then I would buy it!

As it happens, I am currently reading Dawkin's The God Delusion and, so far, (about 70% into it) am not overwhelmed (even though I respect Dawkins and enjoyed a couple of his other books). Perhaps I will find some meat in the book as I go further, but, so far, he is demolishing arguments for a God external to the Universe who created it and is interested in day-to-day activities of individuals and regularly manipulates His Creation. The idea of a "personal God", while quite common to the average "Joe and Jane" is, IMHO, so flat that it does not need further attack.

He acknowledges Einstein's pantheistic God and quotes Hawking and others who use the term "God" in that vein. Dawkins then makes an incredible charge (worthy of Ann Coulter :^) when he says (p19):

... I wish that physicists would refrain from using the word God in their special metaphorical sence. The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking ... God of the Bible... Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, AN ACT OF INTELLECTUAL HIGH TREASON. [EMPHASIS added]

I checked the index and could find no reference to the "Gaia Hypothesis" that we humans (and other life in the biosphere) are, by our role in evolution and natural selection, creating some sort of meta-consciousness that does wield some overall power and intentionality at the whole Earth level. That concept is part and parcel of a pantheistic belief an God and, if true, fully worthy of the use of the term "God". I hope he gets to it.


Dinesh D'Souza’s argument that our five senses are insufficient to apprehend the whole truth is a misleading half-truth about science. One can argue that all the sciences began by going beyond the natural senses with measurement devices. Chemistry began with the analytic balance, biology with the microscope, physics with the telescope. Spectroscopes, particle detectors, radiation detectors, scanning electron microscopes, atomic force microscopes and dozens of other instruments go many categories and many magnitudes beyond our senses from the highest energies and smallest particles to almost to the entire detectable universe. Science also explains why things exist beyond our knowing, that is, beyond the event horizon and black holes.

The panentheist definition of God is the totality of whatever exists (the "ground of existence") in the broadest possible sense of “exists’ including what we can never know. My opinion of Dawkins is that he is a brilliant polemicist but not a reliable authority on either religion or science. Right or wrong, I think his motive is winning arguments, and he is good at it. He could also have been a great preacher or maybe an insurance salesman.


Thanks for the reference, Stu. It's interesting to me that Dinesh D'Souza is trying to make something out of nothing. The trouble with quoting old philosophers is that they are often deprived of essential knowledge that any school child has today. Kant wrote in a time in which there was no remote sensing and man had to depend on his own immediate sensing capability. This gives one a very restrictive idea of what can be known by the senses and what actually exists. He also misrepresents science as very narrow and restrictive in its view.

First of all, science places no limit on what might be invisible to us and our sensory surrogates. It only requires that the unsensible world be consistent with the sensible world in any place
they make contact. It we use D'Souza's tape recorder analogy, I would say the following. If you postulate that an invisible, unfeelable, unsmellible, etc. tree falls in a forest next to the tape recorder, then the tape recorder should at least hear a sound which is consistent with the existence of such a tree, even if the tape recorder can't "see" the tree fall. The science establishment has demonstrated that it is willing to seek out hypothetical things that are normally invisible. Remember that scientists hypothesized the existence of the neutrino based upon seeming violations of Conservation of Momentum and Energy. The particle was actually "seen" only after the the design of an experiment, expenditure of millions of dollars and tons of steel from old battle ships (if I remember correctly). Believers in the invisible world of religion can't even propose a consistency experiment.

I understand, even if I don't agree with, authors like Dawkins. It seems as though we still have terrible global clashes over religion. In Dawkins' mind and that of others, such clashes will continue as long as humans are willing to be motivated by a blind faith that makes them intolerant of those who don't also admit that unverifiable truth. In a sense, Dawkins is acting out of political ideology rather than science. I think that Ira's laisser-faire policy is the right one. Aggressive atheism (or pantheism) is not the way to fight aggressive religion.


joel said...

Kant said:
The only way we apprehend empirical reality is through our five senses. But why should we believe, Kant asked, that this five-mode instrument is sufficient? What makes us think that there is no reality that lies beyond sensory perception?

Joel remarks: In addition to comments I've already made, I'd like to note the following. If you ask the average person how many senses there are, they would say five. It's funny how misinformation can be perpetuated. Actually, we can clearly see that there are more. The five "standard" senses are hearing, seeing, touching, smelling and tasting. But, everyone knows that we sense temperature, our own acceleration and the gravity vector (our sense of balance). This illustrates one of our sources of fallibility. We do not hesitate to parrot and even believe outdated or false information if it suits our rhetorical purposes. Thinking is a risky business. That's why so few humans bother. With respect -Joel

Jürgen said...

First, I suggest that people who engage in a debate should make sure that they spell the word that is debated correctly. It is "atheist". The word itself is a bit problematic since it is a negation (the Greek "a" is a negative like in "a-tom" which means un-dividable). If you don't believe in a god (theos) how can you then negate that non-believe (a-theos)? Since I do not believe in astrology, does this non-believe make me an a-astrologer? You see the problem here.
Secondly, Kant shows in his "Critique" the limits of human knowledge. We are restricted to empirical knowledge, and even this knowledge is limited by the limits of our senses. To turn this insight around and use it as a defense against atheism is typical for the religious cherry pickers. Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" was a bomb because it did just that: state that we humans CANNOT say anything, neither positive nor negative, about the existence of god---since he (she?) is beyond the realm of empirical knowledge. Kant realized the impact of his "Critique" because it dethroned the christian god---and subsequently he wrote the "Kritik der Urteilskraft" and the "Kritik der praktischen Vernunft". Guess, why!
Thirdly, let's assume there is a god. Is it Baal, Thor, Zeus, Apollo, Yahwe, Allah, Krishna or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Each one of those "believers" are convinced that their god is the only one---that's why they kill each other from time to time over this issue (and especially these days!)
Fourth, nobody knows whether there is a god or not. Those who claim otherwise are not truthful! You may "believe" there is a god, you may also "believe" in coffee pots and worship the trees in your garden. Does religion give people comfort and take their fear away? Of course. But, as Marx stated long ago: Religion ist Opium für das Volk.


Ira Glickstein said...

Jürgen: Thanks for joining this discussion (and for the spelling lesson :^) Sadly my one year of German does not allow me to fully appreciate all of your posting. In future, if you stay with us (and I hope you will) please provide an English translation. advTHANKSance

I don't agree that the take-home message from Kant is that, in your words "...we humans CANNOT say anything, neither positive nor negative, about the existence of god---since he (she?) is beyond the realm of empirical knowledge."

IMHO, after we think about it, we can SAY anything about God we believe is reasonable (as you have). The point is (and I agree with Kant) what we say may turn out to be MISTAKEN or FALSE!

I would appreciate it if you would address the points made by Joel and Howard about science and technlogy having advanced since Kant's time. We can now see, using electronic and optical sensors and atom-smashers, things Kant could not see.

My opinion on this is, yes, we can detect and do analysis on things beyond native human senses, but we still may forever be unable to really comprehend some subset of them. At least I can't.

For example, I accept that time and space are the same and gravity is due to the curvature of space and there are ten or eleven dimensions, and so on. Even if those statements, based on readings from advanced sensors and mathematical analysis and so on, are absolutely true (and I accept they are) I have absolutely no real idea what they mean.

It may be that the basic limits of our brain structure, which evolved to survive and reproduce in a 3D space plus time world, just can't apprehend the actual situation.

But, that does not mean we should stop trying!

Ira Glickstein

PS: If you intend to continue to participate, I'd appreciate it if you's send an email to me,, with a bit of your bio and such. If you'd like, you could probably become an authorized Author so your Comments will apear instantly without my Moderating them.

Jürgen said...


Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” had a tremendous impact on philosophical thinking since it “proved” that our rational thought (our thinking) is limited. Furthermore, Kant’s logical “proofs” (the four antinomies) demonstrate the “shortcomings” of reasoning. Thus, the take-home message is indeed, that we cannot prove or disprove the existence of god (or anything for that matter that is beyond our realm of empirical knowledge.) When we take into account the time Kant lived in (absolutism) his conclusions were radical, but he could not propose the non-existence of god without risking his career, reputation and his life. (Christians had a tendency to deal with heretics by burning their papers and when this did not help, then they burned the author!) Kant clearly realized the impact of his “Critique” that is why he wrote the “Kritik der praktischen Vernunft” (“Critique of Practical Reason”) and the “Kritik der Urteilskraft” (“Critique of Judgment”). In both works he lays the foundation for a rational, humanistic ethics---since he himself had “dethroned” god which meant that an ethical system which is derived from god is not on solid ground anymore. Nietzsche, by the way, was confronted with the same problem: if you declare that god is dead, then you need to “fill the void” with a new ethical system, which he did by proposing the “Übermensch” (“Overman”, “Superman”), a person, in other words, who creates his own laws. Of course, we may say anything about god but this is pure speculation.

Science has progressed since Kant and we can “see” further and deeper into space and matter. But we also have reached new limits i.e. Heisenberg’s “Unschärferelation” (uncertainty principle). We are close to a fraction of a second to the beginning of the universe (big bang) and I have no doubt that science will continue to bring us closer to an understanding of the world.
But that is not the point when we discuss god or atheism. Humans will never fully understand the “world”. Here, we agree. And I think this is good for it forces us to remain modest in a Socratian way.

As for the debate about god and atheism… can we as a nation in the 21-century afford to believe in a psychopathic dictator in the sky who “gave” us rules that are either self-evident (Thou shall not kill) or simply narcisstic (worship no other gods, etc.)? Can we afford to live by the rules and regulations of some desert people who had less knowledge and understanding of the world than a 10-year-old has today (geography, physics, biology, etc.)? And lastly, can we afford to be ruled by people who claim that god told them what to do?

Marx was right: religion is opium for the people.

Steve Ruberg said...

I think Kant's belief that "reason is limited to the five senses" is the same as stating that science is limited to what can be known about the physical universe. I believe the question lurking behind this discussion, "Is the physical universe all there is?" may be what Kant was intending. Science is unable to answer this question. So in response to Howard, yes we have greatly extended observations beyond our five senses but we are still making observations that are limited to the physical universe. Stating a belief that a Creator is the first cause of the universe can't be proven or dismissed with our technical observational tools. I doubt human logic will ever be successful in coming up with arguments for or against a creator that will finally convince the already decided. Nor will either side ever have the observational tools to conclusively end this argument. The atheist can't disprove God; the believer can't scientifically or logically prove God's existence.

So no matter how potent Dawkins' arguments against experiencing God personally he will never be able prove that God has not in some way interacted with humans on a personal or historical level. But maybe we get just a hint of a personal God through the good actions of people. There are many who claim to "hear from God" and are certainly delusional (rarely, but sometimes even dangerous) - we see them in the streets shouting at us to repent, we read about their justification for polygamy in our newspapers and regularly hear their rantings from Pakistani caves. Both Jim Bakker (televangelist) and Mother Theresa also claimed to hear God. However, Mother Theresa's life resulted in something that appears to have been a healing force for good. Mother Theresa's actions appeal far more to my sense of what is good than Bakker - or Dawkins. Did she have some dialogue - with or without words - that resulted in her behavior? We will never be sure. However, I believe we're hearing a whisper of a larger conversation going on here.

While I haven't read The God Delusion, I have read Blind Watchmaker and The End of Faith by Sam Harris. Neither of these books succeeds in proving conclusively that a creator is not actively involved in the universe - that can't be done. However, they seem to be saying, "All religion is obviously wrong and destructive; Reason and science are superior to religion". This strikes me as being very close to creating the same tension that dogmatic religion creates.

But even Dawkins has not ruled out the possibility of "god" entirely. In a Time magazine debate with Human Genome project leader Francis Collins (Nov 13, 2006), he clearly has a sense of wonder about a potential god, "My mind is open to the most wonderful range of future possibilities, which I cannot even dream about, nor can you, nor can anybody else. If there is a God, its going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed." And so at a basic level I don't see the universe much different than Dawkins. I look out my window and see an amazing world full of life evolved over time caused by God; Dawkins looks out his window and sees a world full of wonders that occurred by accident. I doubt we’ll ever conclusively convince each other but I greatly respect and admire his excitement about this potentially amazing "god".

Ira Glickstein said...

Steve, thanks for joining us! I've been trying to balance the Blog "left and right" with the addition of Jurgen, and now, with you onboard, perhaps we can balance it "fore and aft".

You raise a great point: "Is the physical universe all there is?" [Emphasis added]

If by physical you mean accessible by human senses and human-made sensors and human reason, I would agree with you and say "no".

There is much more to the Universe than we humans can see, feel, and understand, now or ever -- even with the most advanced technology and science we will invent and conceive in the future.

As the great success of quantum mechanics has demonstrated, every scientific discovery opens up more unknowns. The more we learn the more we appreciate how little we know. Physicists revel in their "quantum weirdness", "Schrödinger's cat", "non-locality", "Heisenberg's Uncertainty" and so much more!

I also agree with you there needs to be an initial cause. For me, and most scientists, that first cause is energy/matter and the Universal Laws of Nature. Scientists assume they are Eternal. They have no idea where they came from or why. The "big bang" is as close as we can get to the first cause.

Given energy/matter and the Laws of Nature, I have no difficulty accepting as a certainty that, over a period of a billion years, with nothing but undirected mixing, "autocatalytic cycles" led to an "RNA world" that led to some type of primitive DNA.

At that point, a type of life existed. That life responded to its environment and the processes were therefore no longer totally undirected. Through evolution and natural selection, primitive DNA life led to blue-green algae, and, another two-billion years later, to multi-cell life and a billion years after that to primates and humans.

You say "...I look out my window and see an amazing world full of life evolved over time caused by God; Dawkins looks out his window and sees a world full of wonders that occurred by accident." [Emphasis added]

Dawkins (and I) believe initial primitive forms of life came about through the Laws of Nature working on matter/energy. I guess you could call that "by accident" - but, given the Laws and matter/energy, and a billion years of mixing on billions of planets, that "accident" was bound to happen. Therefore, it was not an ordinary accident. The chances of it happening were 100%!

Once that "accident" occurred, it was no longer a matter of chance. Dawkins, in his "God Delusion", says as much! Regarding the origin of complex life, he says "Chance is not a solution ..."

Here is the context of his remark (from pg 119) "No indeed, chance is not the likely designer. ... But the candidate solutions to the riddle of improbability [of complex life] are not, as is falsely implied, design and chance. Chance is not a solution, given the high levels of improbability we see in living organisms, and no sane biologist ever suggested that it was."

For Dawkins (and me) evolution and natural selection are the solution.

Yes, it is posible the universe we know is contained in some huge petri dish and we are the objects of experimentation by some external Creator. Perhaps the Creator has left the experiment to play out as it will, or perhaps the Creator continues to dabble in it. We will never know.

Even if the external Creator lifted some of us out and tried to explain the experiment to us, we would have about as much chance of really understanding as a bacteria plucked out of an experiment by a human scientist.

Please continue this dialog! I want to make this Blog a safe, fair and balanced place for courteous discussion of serious topics. You are eminently qualified to help us balance this Blog.

Ira Glickstein

EttaLynn said...

Professor Ira ~

What an engaging discussion! A friend introduced me to your Virtual Philosophy Club and I'm rather enjoying the conversation. I'm not a scientist myself, so I may be out of line by commenting, but hopefully these thoughts are helpful.

A few comments: First, Jürgen asks,

"...can we as a nation in the 21-century afford to believe in a psychopathic dictator in the sky who “gave” us rules that are either self-evident...or simply narcisstic ...? Can we afford to live by the rules and regulations of some desert people who had less knowledge and understanding of the world than a 10-year-old has today ...? And lastly, can we afford to be ruled by people who claim that god told them what to do?"

My question for Jürgen is this: what exactly is at stake in allowing ourselves to be influenced by religion/religious beliefs? Others have pointed out Kant's admission that reason is limited, and our own capacity to understand what we reason even more so. Is this an argument to leave the unexplained unexplained? And what of the greater risk of leaving ethics up to the individual (Kant's Übermensch, or "Superman")?

My second comment relates to the post on matter/energy and the Universal Laws of Nature as a "first cause" for the material world. I agree with you that, given the Laws of Nature, there is little "chance" involved in the process of evolution. I'm a bit fuzzy, however, on the jump from "Scientists assume [the Universal Laws of Nature] are Eternal. They have no idea where they came from or why" to those same Laws of Nature being a certainty. Perhaps it's my limited understanding of this area of science, but it seems to me a rather large jump, to go from uncertainty/lack of proof to a given that "proves" (or simply explains) the evolution of our Universe.

Just a few thoughts...

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks for joining the conversation EttaLynn - you don't need any special "scientist" qualifications to post to this Blog, just ordinary courtesy.

I'll let Jurgen (or Stu?) answer your first question.

I'm not sure I understand your second question. You wrote

"I'm a bit fuzzy, however, on the jump from 'Scientists assume [the Universal Laws of Nature] are Eternal. They have no idea where they came from or why' to those same Laws of Nature being a certainty. Perhaps it's my limited understanding of this area of science, but it seems to me a rather large jump, to go from uncertainty/lack of proof to a given that 'proves' (or simply explains) the evolution of our Universe."

I checked back in this thread and found this that I wrote:

"Given energy/matter and the Laws of Nature, I have no difficulty accepting as a certainty that, over a period of a billion years, with nothing but undirected mixing, "autocatalytic cycles" led to an "RNA world" that led to some type of primitive DNA."

I'm not saying that the Laws of Nature are a certainty (I have no idea why they are exactly as they are or where they came from or why). All I am saying is, given those Laws and matter/energy and billions of years of undirected mixing on billions of planets, some primitive DNA was bound to form. That is the part I claim is a certainty. The part about primitive DNA coming into existence.

I mentioned the "autocatalytic cycles" and "RNA world" because Manfred Eigen thinks they are precursors to primitive DNA life. (See and look for Eigen's thesis there.)

Ira Glickstein

PS: If you plan to remain with the Blog, and would like to become an authorized Author, please send an email to me at with a brief bio.

Jürgen said...

My response to Ettalynn:

First, it was not Kant who proposed "Superman", it was Nietzsche. Secondly, the concept of superman should be seen in a larger context (similar to Buddha's advice to "overcome" your teacher "killing the Buddha") and not that Joe or Jill can make up his/her own rules.
Thirdly, the bible as a moral guidance? Most people who believe this have not read the bible!

I could not say it any better than Harris did, so here it is:

The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos
Sam Harris

One cannot criticize religious dogmatism for long without encountering the following claim, advanced as though it were a self-evident fact of nature: there is no secular basis for morality. Raping and killing children can only really be wrong, the thinking goes, if there is a God who says it is. Otherwise, right and wrong would be mere matters of social construction, and any society would be at liberty to decide that raping and killing children is actually a wholesome form of family fun. In the absence of God, John Wayne Gacy could be a better person than Albert Schweitzer, if only more people agreed with him.

It is simply amazing how widespread this fear of secular moral chaos is, given how many misconceptions about morality and human nature are required to set it whirling in a person’s brain. There is undoubtedly much to be said against the spurious linkage between faith and morality, but the following three points should suffice.
1 1. If a book like the Bible were the only reliable blueprint for human decency that we had, it would be impossible (both practically and logically) to criticize it in moral terms. But it is extraordinarily easy to criticize the morality one finds in the Bible, as most of it is simply odious and incompatible with a civil society.

The notion that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is really quite amazing, given the contents of the book. Human sacrifice, genocide, slaveholding, and misogyny are consistently celebrated. Of course, God’s counsel to parents is refreshingly straightforward: whenever children get out of line, we should beat them with a rod (Proverbs 13:24, 20:30, and 23:13–14). If they are shameless enough to talk back to us, we should kill them (Exodus 21:15, Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18–21, Mark 7:9–13, and Matthew 15:4–7). We must also stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshiping graven images, practicing sorcery, and a wide variety of other imaginary crimes.

Most Christians imagine that Jesus did away with all this barbarism and delivered a doctrine of pure love and toleration. He didn’t. (See Matthew 5:18–19, Luke 16:17, 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 20–21, John 7:19.) Anyone who believes that Jesus only taught the Golden Rule and love of one’s neighbor should go back and read the New Testament. And he or she should pay particular attention to the morality that will be on display if Jesus ever returns to earth trailing clouds of glory (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 1:7–9, 2:8; Hebrews 10:28–29; 2 Peter 3:7; and all of Revelation).

It is not an accident that St. Thomas Aquinas thought heretics should be killed and that St. Augustine thought they should be tortured. (Ask yourself, what are the chances that these good doctors of the Church hadn’t read the New Testament closely enough to discover the error of their ways?) As a source of objective morality, the Bible is one of the worst books we have. It might be the very worst, in fact—if we didn’t also happen to have the Qur’an.

It is important to point out that we decide what is good in the Good Book. We read the Golden Rule and judge it to be a brilliant distillation of many of our ethical impulses; we read that a woman found not to be a virgin on her wedding night should be stoned to death, and we (if we are civilized) decide that this is the most vile lunacy imaginable. Our own ethical intuitions are, therefore, primary. So the choice before us is simple: we can either have a twenty-first-century conversation about ethics—availing ourselves of all the arguments and scientific insights that have accumulated in the last two thousand years of human discourse—or we can confine ourselves to a first-century conversation as it is preserved in the Bible.

2. If religion were necessary for morality, there should be some evidence that atheists are less moral than believers.

People of faith regularly allege that atheism is responsible for some of the most appalling crimes of the twentieth century. Are atheists really less moral than believers? While it is true that the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were irreligious to varying degrees, they were not especially rational. In fact, their public pronouncements were little more than litanies of delusion—delusions about race, economics, national identity, the march of history, or the moral dangers of intellectualism. In many respects, religion was directly culpable even here. Consider the Holocaust: the anti-Semitism that built the Nazi crematoria brick by brick was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity. For centuries, Christian Europeans had viewed the Jews as the worst species of heretics and attributed every societal ill to their continued presence among the faithful.

While the hatred of Jews in Germany expressed itself in a predominantly secular way, its roots were undoubtedly religious—and the explicitly religious demonization of the Jews of Europe continued throughout the period. (The Vatican itself perpetuated the blood libel in its newspapers as late as 1914.) Auschwitz, the Gulag, and the killing fields are not examples of what happens when people become too critical of unjustified beliefs; on the contrary, these horrors testify to the dangers of not thinking critically enough about specific secular ideologies. Needless to say, a rational argument against religious faith is not an argument for the blind embrace of atheism as a dogma. The problem that the atheist exposes is none other than the problem of dogma itself—of which every religion has more than its fair share. I know of no society in recorded history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report (2005), the most atheistic societies—countries like Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom—are actually the healthiest, as indicated by measures of life expectancy, adult literacy, per-capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate, and infant mortality. Conversely, the fifty nations now ranked lowest by the UN in terms of human development are unwaveringly religious. Of course, correlational data of this sort do not resolve questions of causality—belief in God may lead to societal dysfunction, societal dysfunction may foster a belief in God, each factor may enable the other, or both may spring from some deeper source of mischief. Leaving aside the issue of cause and effect, these facts prove that atheism is perfectly compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society; they also prove, conclusively, that religious faith does nothing to ensure a society’s health.

1 3. If religion really provided the only conceivable objective basis for morality, it should be impossible to posit a nontheistic objective basis for morality. But it is not impossible; it is rather easy.

Clearly, we can think of objective sources of moral order that do not require the existence of a law-giving God. In The End of Faith, I argued that questions of morality are really questions about happiness and suffering. If there are objectively better and worse ways to live so as to maximize happiness in this world, these would be objective moral truths worth knowing. Whether we will ever be in a position to discover these truths and agree about them cannot be known in advance (and this is the case for all questions of scientific fact). But if there are psychophysical laws that underwrite human well-being—and why wouldn’t there be?—then these laws are potentially discoverable. Knowledge of these laws would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality. In the meantime, everything about human experience suggests that love is better than hate for the purposes of living happily in this world. This is an objective claim about the human mind, the dynamics of social relations, and the moral order of our world. While we do not have anything like a final, scientific approach to maximizing human happiness, it seems safe to say that raping and killing children will not be one of its primary constituents.

One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns—about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith. Incompatible religious doctrines have balkanized our world into separate moral communities, and these divisions have become a continuous source of human conflict. The idea that there is a necessary link between religious faith and morality is one of the principal myths keeping religion in good standing among otherwise reasonable men and women. And yet, it is a myth that is easily dispelled.

Sam Harris is the author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Jurgen for the correction on the originator of the concept of Übermensch. We we humans, like all species before us, will be the source of something beyond ourselves.

Within the family Hominidae (great apes) we belong to the genus Homo. As Homo erectus and others gave way to Homo sapiens (you and me) we will, in turn, give way to what might be called Homo superior, aka Übermensch, Overman, or Superman.

Quoting Nietzsche: "All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment..."

According to, Nietzsche believed that, at any given time, some humans are above others, equality among humans is a depraved Christian myth, and individuals may overcome mere biological evolution, and become the "overman".

Thus, IMHO, Ettalynn has a point when she warns of "the greater risk of leaving ethics up to the individual ...", the "overman" who makes up his own moral rules in contradiction to those we've inherited from thousands of years of religious tradition.

Activist atheists poke fun at traditional religion. They go much further, with Dawkins (in "God Delusion") stating what seems to me to be an elitist view that teaching even moderate religion is on a par with sexual abuse of children. Fundamentalist religious leaders are called the "American Taliban".

Activist atheists, these self-proclaimed paragons of "human reason", look upon the majority of the population who are believers of one sort or another as mere apes. In the name of advancement of human reason, believers must be prevented from passing these traditional beliefs on to their own children!

How does their view differ from that of religious zealots who, when they gain control of a given society, blow up competing churches? The only difference is that the activist atheists do not (yet) have the power to enforce what I would call their "church of reason".

I hasten to add that I am not a literal believer. I consider some parts of the Jewish scriptures on a par with Aesop's Fables. The "miracles" and personal interest of God in individuals like Abraham are merely interpretations of humans who lived in the pre-scientific age.

While Aesop's "ant and the grasshopper" and "fox and the goat" lack literal truth, they contain more real truth about the human condition than anything you are likely to read in your daily newspaper or TV newscast. The Bible (and other ancient religious texts) have survived and reproduced for centuries because they contain some basic truths that are far deeper and more significant than who is leading in the presidential polls or who won some ball game.

We Homo sapiens will indeed give way to a superior species (I'm betting on Homo robotica - computerized robots :^)

It is necessary to challenge beliefs and customs that may have outlasted their adaptive value.

On the other hand, evolution and natural selection have wired our brains to cling to belief in something superior to the individual. No society has been successful without some myths that lack literal truth but are, nevertheless, integral to their survival.

The long quote from Sam Harris in Jurgen's Comment pokes at what most of us would consider "unreasonable" parts of Jewish and Christian texts. Their point is that belief in God is not necessary for continuation of a civil society and, in fact, is an impediment to it.

I disagree. Most people believe some kind of God (or "Karma" etc.) watches their actions. We feel good when we are good and bad when we are bad precisely because, when we were children prior to development of our reason our parents "imprinted" us with these myths, most of them attributed to the existence of God (or "Karma", etc.)

Absent this type of socialization, more of us would take advantage of others, steal whenever we have half a chance, and so on.

Let us use our reason and not willy-nilly throw out what might be foundations of civilization.

Ira Glickstein