bookmark_borderReligion in Human Evolution

I tried to read Robert N. Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution. It should have been interesting—prominent social scientist writes ambitious, sweeping book about religion—but I abandoned it about a third of the way through. I rarely fail to finish books. But I couldn’t stand this one any more.

My impression: it’s a profoundly learned but also profoundly superficial book, because it’s so obsessed with finding transcendent depth in every religious and wisdom tradition. Bellah just seemed incapable of recognizing bullshit. So the book effectively indulges in apologetics in the form of pathological avoidance of any criticism. We get other ways of knowing, poetic, propositionally inexpressible truths—even in the drivel produced to ostensibly explain other items of bad poetry. We get “unitary events”—not just interesting psychological phenomena but self-validating religious experiences that break into deeper realities.

Biological evolution becomes another “true myth,” comparable to all those other religious true myths. None of this implicit natural science-bashing relies on anything as pedestrian as arguments or evidence, beyond some unfortunately typical misreadings of controversies over “selfish genes,” taking some embarrassing cosmic effusions by Eric Chaisson too seriously, and so on and so forth. Bellah even takes the verbal diarrhea of people like postmodernist psychoanalysts seriously as a kind of wisdom literature. It’s not so much that Bellah kept pulling stuff out of his own ass, but quoting tons of material others have pulled out of their asses, as long as they are congenial to his overall mushy point of view.

It quickly turned into a bad stereotype of liberal religiosity: everyone (every tradition) is right, though some may have more depth than others. An implicit avoidance of criticism threads through the part of the book I endured, though it does not prevent Bellah from substituting condescendence for criticism.

Oh, did I mention that there was Templeton support behind this work? Typical.

bookmark_borderOxford Handbook of Atheism contents

Here’s the contents list of a book coming out in about a year, with some chapters appearing online earlier. It should be interesting…

The Oxford Handbook of Atheism
Editors: Stephen Bullivant (St Mary’s University College)
and Michael Ruse (Florida State University)
Introduction: The Study of Atheism – Stephen Bullivant (St Mary’s) and Michael Ruse (Florida State)
Part 1: Definitions and Debates
1. Defining ‘Atheism’ – Stephen Bullivant (St Mary’s)
2. The Case against Atheism – T. J. Mawson (Oxford)
3. Critiques of Theistic Arguments – A. C. Grayling (Birkbeck)
4. Arguments for Atheism – Graham Oppy (Monash)
5. Problems of Evil – Michael L. Peterson (Asbury)
6. Atheism and Morality – Erik J. Wielenberg (DePauw)
7. Atheism and the Meaningfulness of Life – Kimberly A. Blessing (Buffalo State)
8. Aquinas and Atheism – Brian Davies (Fordham)
Part 2: History of (Western) Atheism
9. The Pre-Socratics to the Hellenistic Age – David Sedley (Cambridge)
10. The Roman Empire to the End of the First Millennium – Mark Edwards (Oxford)
11. The Medieval Period – Dorothea Weltecke (Konstanz)
12. Renaissance and Reformation – Denis Robichaud (Notre Dame)
13. The Age of Enlightenment – Alan C. Kors (Pennsylvania)
14. The Nineteenth Century – David Nash (Oxford Brookes)
15. The Twentieth Century – Callum Brown (Dundee)
16. New Atheism – Thomas Zenk (Berlin Free)
Part 3: Worldviews and Systems
17. Humanism – Stephen Law (Heythrop)
18. Existentialism – Alison Stone (Lancaster)
19. Marxism – Peter Thompson (Sheffield)
20. Analytic Philosophy – Charles Pigden (Otago)
21. Jewish Atheism – Jacques Berlinerblau (Georgetown)
22. Buddhism – Andrew Skilton (SOAS)
23. Jainism – Anne Vallely (Ottawa)
24. Hinduism – Jessica Frazier (Kent)
Part 4: Atheism and the Natural Sciences
25. Naturalism and the Scientific Method – Michael Ruse (Florida State)
26. Atheism and the Rise of Science – Taner Edis (Truman)
27. Atheism and Darwinism) – David P. Barash (Washington)
28. Atheism and the Physical Sciences – Victor J. Stenger (Colorado)
Part 5: Atheism and the Social Sciences
29. Atheism and the Secularization Thesis – Frank L. Pasquale and Barry A. Kosmin (ISSSC)
30. Psychology of Atheism –Miguel Farias (Oxford)
31. Atheism and Cognitive Science – Jonathan Lanman (Oxford)
32. Atheism and Societal Health – Phil Zuckerman (Pitzer)
33. Atheism, Gender, and Sexuality – Melanie A. Brewster (Columbia)
34. Atheism, Health and Well-being – Karen Hwang (Center for Atheist Research)
35. Conversion and Deconversion – Ralph W. Hood and Zhuo Chen (Tennessee)
Part 6: Global Expressions
36. A World of Atheism: Global Demographics – Ariela Keysar (Trinity) and Juhem Navarra-Rivera (Connecticut)
37. Western Europe – Lois Lee (Cambridge)
38. North America – Ryan T. Cragun (Tampa), Joseph H. Hammer (Iowa State), Jesse M. Smith (Colorado)
39. Central and Eastern Europe – Irena Borowik (Jagiellonian), Branko Ančić (Institute for Social Research), Radosław Tyrała (AGH)
40. Islamic World  – Samuli Schielke (ZMO, Berlin)
41. India – Johannes Quack (Heidelberg)
42. Japan – Sarah Whylly (Florida State)
Part 7: Atheism and the Arts
43. Literature – Bernard Schweizer (Long Island)
44.Visual Arts  – J. Sage Elwell (TCU)
45.Music  – Paul Bertagnolli (Houston)
46.Film – Nina Power (Roehampton)

bookmark_borderFreedom of the Press Foundation

Nonbelievers have a strong interest in free speech and a free press, particularly where freedom to publicly criticize religion in concerned.

This is particularly clear in Islamic contexts, where religion is socially very powerful. Since censorship is usually deployed by the powerful in protection of their interests, it’s understandable that Muslim countries are often in the lead in attempts to suppress mockery and criticism of religion.

In the United States, religion is not quite so powerful now—perhaps this is why we enjoy a greater latitude in confronting religion compared to, say, the nineteenth century with its Comstock laws and so forth. But this doesn’t mean that freedom of speech and a free press are not matters of concern in the US. Reporting and criticism involving powerful corporate and government interests have a way of being directly and indirectly suppressed.

I’d like to be consistent in supporting free speech. I also I don’t want to vulnerable to possible arguments that all societies restrict free speech in matters sacred to them—for Muslims it is religion, for post-Christian Westerners it is money and nationalism. So let me suggest a donation to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, as one way of supporting a free press at home, so we can feel better about supporting a free press abroad.

bookmark_borderTed Rall comes out?

I’ve occasionally referred to Ted Rall, the cartoonist and author, as an example of an ultraliberal theist who was indistinguishable from a godless humanist (especially a left-wing godless humanist) on ethical matters. But in a recent column, he says

Science isn’t reconcilable with faith. Rubio knows that. But he also knows what would happen to his presidential aspirations if he admitted the truth.
God is a lie.
If you believe in God, you are stupid.
If you think the earth is 6,000 years old, that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, and/or that climate change isn’t real or caused by people, you are an idiot.
Since many of my readers believe in God, the words above will cost me sales and clients. Optimists might argue that being forthright about my beliefs will attract at least as many new customers. But that’s not the way the world works.


On one hand, it’s mildly encouraging to see someone resolve the intellectual tensions in their views by adopting what I think is a more sensible position.

On the other hand, it’s mildly annoying as it deprives me of an example I could use when I feel like arguing that nonbelief in God can be irrelevant in ethical and political matters.

Maybe I should pay more attention to how atheism can matter.

bookmark_borderGod on a cow

Catholics see Jesus on burnt toast. Muslims don’t do images, so they see “Allah” in Arabic script on various objects. Inside vegetables that have been cut open is a perennial favorite.

Here is one of these miracles from Turkey: a cow, intended for sacrifice in the present Eid, which appears to vaguely perhaps have “Allah” written on its side.


Well, monotheistic weirdness is but a subset of the weirdness we humans are capable of. And damn, are we capable of an awful lot of brain-melting, asinine notions that tie into spiritual beliefs. For example:

(Sounds of me banging my head against a wall…)