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February 10, 2013


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Atheism often shares the same faults as are imputed to religion, eg, intolerance, certainty in its cause (or blind faith), illiberalism, and a will to suppress others. Moreover, atheists frequently have a view of history that would do David Irving's revisionism proud.

Francis Sedgemore

"religion has some positive effects"

So too does cat therapy.

If one compares the subjective well-being of religious practitioners with, say, lonely individuals who have more restricted opportunities for social interaction, then of course one can argue that religion may have a positive effect. But that does not detract from the harm done by religion, whether it be head-chopping Salafist Islam, happy clappy evangelical Christianity, or the sexually repressed magic of Catholicism. Religion, as I say in the blog post to which you link above, is at root the codification of gut feelings combined with an ideology of social control.

This is what the so-called militant atheists bang on about. It is a perfectly worthy endeavour to expose religion for what it is, and encourage people to reject religion in favour of more reasonable approaches to psychological health and well-being. Irrationality is only one part of it. As for fragile egos, heaven forfend that people be more like me, me, me.


"The demand that religion die out, or that it spread, amounts to little more than the demand that people be more like me, me, me."

That isn't true of militant atheism any more than it is of anything else that tries to change public opinion.

At heart it's a political movement. A debate on gay rights, for example, runs into a brick wall when its opponents turn to the bible for justification. The 'war on faith', whether a good idea or not, comes directly from the resulting frustration.


I think the correlation between religion and the benefits you mention above are actually affected by a third variable, namely community. It is a sense of community that makes people more trusting (of fellow members of the community). Religion isn't the only source of community, nationalism is another one.

I would still argue that the negatives of religion greatly outweigh the benefits. Of course not all religious people are like the Taliban, but the reason religion isn't so bad in Europe is that it is so weak and diluted. Were the Catholic church to have the power it had in the Middle Ages, it would be just as bad. It is secularism that is holding the worst abuses of religion in check.

A look at the history of Ireland shows the horrendous abuses committed by the Church. The negatives far outweigh the benefits.

(One quick final point, can we avoid name calling? A militant is someone who advocates violence to further their aims. Atheists do not.)


"militant atheism" is a myth of the Tabloids. All the Atheists I know are very nice people. We could do with more of them and removing Bishops from the Legislature where they have no right to be, pushing for privileges for their faith organisations.

As for people believing in anything if they lose their belief in organised Religion that is a very convenient apology. It is not necessarily true and if it is for some people the new superstition may be less harmful.

The big problem with Religion is that you cannot base Ethics on books of authority. Or people with infallible authority derived there from. There needs to be a good reason for this or that Law or policy not because this book says so according to one persons interpretation based on some invisible holy spirit. Like the speeches of the members of the central committee to the supreme soviet of the USSR only a police state can make everyone nod in agreement with meaningless gibberish of the ruling class. When people use their head to think then the Religionists resort to their only argument the use of force.


The universe taken as a whole is totally absurd. That anything exists at all is beyond the rational. I will stick with the militant agnosticism.

George Carty

I'd argue that one of the main drawbacks of religion is that it can freeze in place anachronistic values.

Some examples:
* The harsh hudud punishments in Islamic law make sense in a time when it was very difficult to actually catch criminals in the first place.
* The Judeo-Islamic pork prohibition made sense in the ancient Middle East because pigs competed with humans for grain crops
* The natalist bent of Catholicism made sense in a time of high infant mortality, a heavy demand for manual labourers, and an impoverished zero-sum economy which incentivized aggressive war.


There are three things at work here: faith (a psychological coping stratgey); community (socialising around a common purpose); and religion (an institution of power).

The first two probably do more good than harm (as your evidence suggests) and shouldn't worry us unless faith trips over in sociopathy or community evolves into institutional power. The last of these, i.e. organised religion, is a net bad as it usually leads to corruption, coercion and prejudice against out-groups.

The end of organised religion would not mean the end of faith, any more than atheism is a bar to becoming a high-ranking religious official (cf. Dostoyevsky's The Grand Inquisitor).

We need fewer atheists and more anti-clericalists. Dawkins should spend less time fussing about God and more time advancing the disestablishment of the CoE.

Mick Beaman

Good post Chris. Didn't David Harvey take a look at the role of the protestant work ethic and conclude that it had a wider economic / social base than just religion? I would try and find the piece but have literally just wrapped up most of my collection to earn a few bob as second hands from Amazon!!


As has been alluded to, "militant atheism" has become a bit of a stock phrase that has lost meaning, people say it when they really mean "atheism". I can't help but think that religious people, in an attempt to feel more confident about their position, look at Richard Dawkins and tell themselves that all atheists are like that, and that people are atheists because they're angry, not because of any facts, ideas or ways of thinking about the world.

Suck my balls, religion!

"What's more, there's pretty good evidence that religious belief is associated - on average and with exceptions naturally - with higher subjective well-being"

Well of course it is - because religious believers are completely deluding themselves.

"Of course, you don't have to look far for evidence that religion also has horrible effects. But it is surely absurdly unscientific to think that Boko Haram or the Taleban are typical of religious observers."

Same category, different degree.

john malpas

And what of war after war after war. Was there ever a war without religeon?


Which religion or religions was or were involved in, for instance, the Sino-Soviet War of 1969?


"Which religion or religions was or were involved in, for instance, the Sino-Soviet War of 1969?"

Ans. Mainstream communism. Both sides claimed to believe in the true revelation but supported different Popes. Try to find any rational grounds for the fight and you would be hard put. But Racism also played a part as is characteristic of most conflicts. Think of the USSR and Red China as updated Spain with the KGB as the inquisition.



Pretty much all of the papers you cite fail to establish causality. They find correlations between religion and characteristic X then ascribe causality to religion.

Most of the work on religion and the economy is really bad. It is sometimes well published but that is because it is a sexy subject. So much of it relies on cross-country regression methods which we have very good reason to believe are deeply flawed. But seriously, so many of these papers are really bad, they should not be promoted as providing scientific evidence that religion is beneficial. Even if it is unscientific to presume that religion does not have its upsides.

One of the better papers in this area is Sasha O Becker's paper on the effect of protestantism on education. In which he is very careful about establishing causality, if I recall correctly. He finds that the higher incomes of protestants can all be explained by the fact that protestantism embraced education for the masses while Catholicism did not.

William Baines

I'm baffled by statements like the one you quote. I also tend to write them off as brash egotism. Why would I want to engage in a battle with the devout?

Walter Russell Mead:
"It seems to me that atheists and theists often exaggerate their differences. Both atheists and theists experience transcendence or meaning in their lives and both have faith that transcendence matters. Both try to live their lives in the light of their experience of life’s meaning."



"Ans. Mainstream communism."

But isn't this a reductio of the whole idea Francis Sedgemore is putting across, namely, that religion qua religion is a distinct and particular source of identifiable evil in the world?

Sedgemore's definition of religion as "nothing more than the codification of gut feelings combined with an ideology of social control" applies equally to any moral or ethical system that has existed, currently exists, or ever will exist.

Francis Sedgemore

"…applies equally to any moral or ethical system that has existed, currently exists, or ever will exist."

It doesn't apply, or at least not equally.

You can have rigid moral systems built on fantasy foundations, but ethics is largely empirical, and necessarily flexible when dealing with the real world in all its greyness. I'm thinking for example of medical ethics, which is a practice carried out in the main by committees striving for consensus, which requires compromise.

Ethical theory and practice can certainly be used as an instrument of social control, and is never ideologically neutral, but its power is more limited than religion and totalitarian political ideologies. Faith-based thinking, which would include fascistic political systems of the right and left, is far less flexible.


By the way, a quite good talk.


(video on top right)


"Pretty much all of the papers you cite fail to establish causality."

In the case of the wellbeing example, religious exclusion of atheists from mainstream institutions is responsible for the observed differences. That is not a positive difference attributable to religion

This blog post is a perfect example of cognitive bias in favour of religion.


I am an atheist, and I completely hate it, despise it even. In a godless universe truth has no intrinsic value, and I believe it is way overrated.
It is almost impossible to find an atheist who is honest about the meaningless of existence, they always argue for “you got to find your own meaning” and other idiotic ideas that fail to fill the vacuum created by the pointlessness of it all.
There were always unbelievers, but what distinguishes the modern atheist is the glee they experience at the death of god. In the past we mourned the dying god, we recognized the Kafkian world his burial would entail; now the modern atheist prances happily around the grave while the rest of us wail in existential agony.

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