Sunday, November 28, 2010


In his latest go at squaring the circle, reconciling religion and science, on Huffington Post, Clay Farris Naff insists that God is real -- because so many people say that He is.

"In reconceptualizing faith," Naff assures us, "you can liberate God from the ancient traps of theology."

I'm much more interested in liberating mankind from this kind of theological doublethink. Nineteen Eighty-Fouris a powerful, terrifying novel, but doublethink and doublespeak and the Ministry of Love and "Two and two are as many as we say" remind me so much more of Christianity than of any Communist institution past or present.

By Naff's standards, witches and the laws of alchemy and astrology were real almost everywhere as late as the late 15th century. Lynn Thorndike gives a fascinating account of how prevalent such beliefs were in medieval society in Chapter XXII of Volume VIIIof the old Cambridge Medieval History, New York: MacMillian, 1936. Universities published annual astrological predictions, physicians were required to own astrolabes and handbooks of astrology and vie for astrological prowess with the theologians, most leading monarchs employed court astrologers, as even leading humanists such as Aeneas Sylvius, the later Pope Pius II, urged that they should.

A scant five centuries and change, and look how such superstitions have been almost entirely overcome, and who would argue that this is not for the good?

As with one superstition, so with another.


  1. This just popped up on my Twitter feed. Since no one commented in the eight years since it was published, I'll make a quick response. I don't know whether you deliberately misrepresented my argument or just didn't understand it, but let me explain in simple terms why it doesn't make me a modern day alchemist.
    First, however, let me reiterate that I am an atheist. Theism is false. Of that, I am sure, the evidence is clear.
    My argument pertains to the reality of God as a widely shared cultural construct, comparable to the dollar. Unlike the dollar, there is some evidence of a genetic predisposition to the cultural construction of gods, origin myths, and the religions. (E.O. Wilson gives a fine version of the argument in his book The Social Conquest of Earth.)
    Why, you may wonder, would an atheist like me bother to make this argument and thereby expose himself to snide ridicule from others in his camp? Because unlike those who treat atheism as a tribal war against the religious tribes, I seek intellectually sound ways to detoxify religion. An essential step in that process is to persuade believers to accept that religions are *cultural* interpretations of reality. You may disagree with that strategy, but if you want to rebut my argument you'll have to grapple with it rather than slay straw men.

    1. I wrote this in November 2010, and by 2012 I had become completely disenchanted with the New Atheists. The New Atheists were the first group I had ever encountered who were united around atheism, and they were a huge disappointment to me. Although I certainly remain an atheist and do nothing to hide it, I have become much more sympathetic to and tolerant of religious believers in general.

      I don't know how I would react to your piece today. I'm not promising anything, but perhaps I'll give it a second look.

  2. Thanks for following up, Steven. People with a genuine commitment to the pursuit of truth will always find that their views evolve over time. That goes for me, and it appears it goes for you, too. Wishing you well, Clay