Further Reading

I have added a new page to Atheist Dave. Underneath the banner at the top of the website you’ll find a link to Further Reading. This is a page where I have added (and will continue to add) easy links to books I’ve read or mentioned dealing with atheism, evolution, biology, religion, zoology, or anything else even remotely related to this site’s topics.

So far I’ve only added 15 books including Darwin, Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and even the exact version/edition of the Bible I’ve been referring to off and on in various posts. All of the books (yes, even the Bible) are highly recommended reads for better insight on all the aforementioned topics. Enjoy!

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Quotes

“Faith is nothing more than the license religious people give themselves to keep believing when reasons fail.” – Sam Harris, An Atheist Manifesto

“There is no society in recorded history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.” – Sam Harris, An Atheist Manifesto

“When we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith; when we have no reasons, or bad ones, we have lost our connection to the world and to one another. Atheism is nothing more than a commitment to the most basic standard of intellectual honesty: One’s convictions should be proportional to one’s evidence. Pretending to be certain when one isn’t—indeed, pretending to be certain about propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable—is both an intellectual and a moral failing. Only the atheist has realized this. The atheist is simply a person who has perceived the lies of religion and refused to make them his own.” – Sam Harris, An Atheist Manifesto

“For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own God. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” – Charles Bukowski

“A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.” – Albert Einstein

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect, had intended for us to forgo their use.” – Galileo Galilei

“It is an interesting and demonstrable fact, that all children are atheists and were religion not inculcated into their minds, they would remain so.” – Ernestine Rose

“Fundamentalists are like the fir trees in German forests: they cannot stand alone, and are only stable when crowded together, branches locked with those of their brothers. That is why we must always fear them, because they will always hate us for our individualism.” – Brent Yaciw

“If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think he would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God, and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul.” – Isaac Asimov

“To say that atheism requires faith is as dim-witted as saying that disbelief in pixies or leprechauns takes faith. Even if Einstein himself told me there was an elf on my shoulder, I would still ask for proof and I wouldn’t be wrong to ask.” – Geoff Mather

“People will then often say, ‘But surely it’s better to remain an Agnostic just in case?’ This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I’ve been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I think I would choose not to worship him anyway.” – Douglas Adams

“I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.” – Richard Dawkins

“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” – Douglas Adams

“Debating creationists on the topic of evolution is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon; it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory.” – S. D. Weitzenhoffer

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.” – Richard Dawkins

“The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason” – Benjamin Franklin

“I credit that eight years of grammar school with nourishing me in a direction where I could trust myself and trust my instincts. They gave me the tools to reject my faith. They taught me to question and think for myself and to believe in my instincts to such an extent that I just said, ‘This is a wonderful fairy tale they have going here, but it’s not for me.'” – George Carlin

“Properly read, the bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” – Isaac Asimov

“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.” – Albert Einstein

The Shadow of the Past (an excerpt)

Cover of "THE END OF FAITH: RELIGION, TER...

Cover via Amazon

Finding ourselves in a universe that seems bent upon destroying us, we quickly discover, both as individuals and as societies, that it is a good thing to understand the forces arrayed against us. And so it is that every human being comes to desire genuine knowledge about the world. This has always posed a special problem for religion, because every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which it has no evidence. In fact, every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable. This put the “leap” in Kierkegaard’s leap of faith.

What if all our knowledge about the world were suddenly to disappear? Imagine that six billion of us wake up tomorrow morning in a state of utter ignorance and confusion. Our books and computers are still here, but we can’t make heads or tails of their contents. We have even forgotten how to drive our cars and brush our teeth. What knowledge would we want to reclaim first? Well, there’s that business about growing food and building shelter that we would want to get reacquainted with. We would want to relearn how to use and repair many of our machines. Learning to understand spoken and written language would also be a top priority, given that these skills are necessary for acquiring most others. When in this process of reclaiming our humanity will it be important to know that Jesus was born of a virgin? Or that he was resurrected? And how would we relearn these truths, if they are indeed true? By reading the Bible? Our tour of the shelves will deliver similar pearls from antiquity – like the “fact” that Isis, the goddess of fertility, sports an impressive pair of cow horns. Reading further, we will learn that Thor carries a hammer and that Marduk’s sacred animals are horses, dogs, and a dragon with a forked tongue. Whom shall we give top billing in our resurrected world? Yahweh or Shiva? And when will we want to relearn that premarital sex is a sin? Or that adulteresses should be stoned to death? Or that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception? And what will we think of those curious people who begin proclaiming that one of our books is distinct from all others in that it was actually written by the Creator of the universe?

There are undoubtedly spiritual truths that we would want to relearn – once we manage to feed and clothe ourselves – and these are truths that we have learned imperfectly in our present state. How is it possible, for instance, to overcome one’s fear and inwardness and simply love other human beings? Assume for the moment, that such a process of personal transformation exists and that there is something worth knowing about it; there is, in other words, some skill, or discipline, or conceptual understanding, or dietary supplement that allows for the reliable transformation of fearful, hateful, or indifferent persons into loving ones. If so, we should be positively desperate to know about it. There may even be a few biblical passages that would be useful in this regard – but as for whole rafts of untestable doctrines, clearly there would be no reasonable basis to take them up again. The Bible and Koran, it seems certain, would find themselves respectfully shelved next to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The point is that most of what we currently hold sacred is not sacred for any reason other than that it was thought sacred yesterday. Surely, if we could create the world anew, the practice of organizing our lives around untestable propositions found in ancient literature – to say nothing of killing and dying for them – would be impossible to justify. What stops us from finding it impossible now?

Many have observed that religion, by lending meaning to human life, permits communities (at least those united under a single faith) to cohere. Historically this is true, and on this score religion is to be credited as much for wars of conquest as for feast days and brotherly love. But in its effect upon the modern world – a world already united, at least potentially, by economic, environmental, political, and epidemiological necessity – religious ideology is dangerously retrograde. Our past is not sacred for being past, and there is much that is behind us that we are struggling to keep behind us, and to which, it is to be hoped, we could never return with a clear conscience: the divine right of kings, feudalism, the caste system, slavery, political executions, forced castration, vivisection, bearbaiting, honorable duels, chastity belts, trial by ordeal, child labor, human and animal sacrifice, the stoning of heretics, cannibalism, sodomy laws, taboos against contraception, human radiation experiments – the list is nearly endless, and if it were extended indefinitely, the proportion of abuses for which religion could be found directly responsible is likely to remain undiminished. In fact, almost every indignity just mentioned can be attributed to an insufficient taste for evidence, to an uncritical faith in one dogma or another. The idea, therefore, that religious faith is somehow a sacred human convention – distinguished, as it is, both by the extravagance of its claims and by the paucity of its evidence – is really too great a monstrosity to be appreciated in all its glory. Religious faith represents so uncompromising a misuse of the power of our minds that it forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity – a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible. When foisted upon each generation anew, it renders us incapable of realizing just how much of our world has been unnecessarily ceded to a dark and barbarous past.

Sam Harris, The End of Faith

An Atheist Manifesto

An Atheist Manifesto
by Sam Harris
07 December, 2005

Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind is not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of 6 billion human beings. The same statistics also suggest that this girl’s parents believe at this very moment that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?

No.

The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for. This is a thankless job. It carries with it an aura of petulance and insensitivity. It is, moreover, a job that the atheist does not want.

It is worth noting that no one ever needs to identify himself as a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist. Consequently, we do not have words for people who deny the validity of these pseudo-disciplines. Likewise, atheism is a term that should not even exist. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma. The atheist is merely a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87% of the population) who claim to never doubt the existence of God should be obliged to present evidence for his existence and, indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day. Only the atheist appreciates just how uncanny our situation is: Most of us believe in a God that is every bit as specious as the gods of Mount Olympus; no person, whatever his or her qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that such a God exists; and much of what passes for public policy in our country conforms to religious taboos and superstitions appropriate to a medieval theocracy. Our circumstance is abject, indefensible and terrifying. It would be hilarious if the stakes were not so high.

We live in a world where all things, good and bad, are finally destroyed by change. Parents lose their children and children their parents. Husbands and wives are separated in an instant, never to meet again. Friends part company in haste, without knowing that it will be for the last time. This life, when surveyed with a broad glance, presents little more than a vast spectacle of loss. Most people in this world, however, imagine that there is a cure for this. If we live rightly-not necessarily ethically, but within the framework of certain ancient beliefs and stereotyped behaviors-we will get everything we want after we die. When our bodies finally fail us, we just shed our corporeal ballast and travel to a land where we are reunited with everyone we loved while alive. Of course, overly rational people and other rabble will be kept out of this happy place, and those who suspended their disbelief while alive will be free to enjoy themselves for all eternity.

We live in a world of unimaginable surprises–from the fusion energy that lights the sun to the genetic and evolutionary consequences of this lights dancing for eons upon the Earth–and yet Paradise conforms to our most superficial concerns with all the fidelity of a Caribbean cruise. This is wondrously strange. If one didn’t know better, one would think that man, in his fear of losing all that he loves, had created heaven, along with its gatekeeper God, in his own image.

Consider the destruction that Hurricane Katrina leveled on New Orleans. More than a thousand people died, tens of thousands lost all their earthly possessions, and nearly a million were displaced. It is safe to say that almost every person living in New Orleans at the moment Katrina struck believed in an omnipotent, omniscient and compassionate God. But what was God doing while a hurricane laid waste to their city? Surely he heard the prayers of those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there. These were people of faith. These were good men and women who had prayed throughout their lives. Only the atheist has the courage to admit the obvious: These poor people died talking to an imaginary friend.

Of course, there had been ample warning that a storm of biblical proportions would strike New Orleans, and the human response to the ensuing disaster was tragically inept. But it was inept only by the light of science. Advance warning of Katrina’s path was wrested from mute Nature by meteorological calculations and satellite imagery. God told no one of his plans. Had the residents of New Orleans been content to rely on the beneficence of the Lord, they wouldn’t have known that a killer hurricane was bearing down upon them until they felt the first gusts of wind on their faces. Nevertheless, a poll conducted by The Washington Post found that 80% of Katrina’s survivors claim that the event has only strengthened their faith in God.

As Hurricane Katrina was devouring New Orleans, nearly a thousand Shiite pilgrims were trampled to death on a bridge in Iraq. There can be no doubt that these pilgrims believed mightily in the God of the Koran: Their lives were organized around the indisputable fact of his existence; their women walked veiled before him; their men regularly murdered one another over rival interpretations of his word. It would be remarkable if a single survivor of this tragedy lost his faith. More likely, the survivors imagine that they were spared through God’s grace.

Only the atheist recognizes the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. Only the atheist realizes how morally objectionable it is for survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God while this same God drowned infants in their cribs. Because he refuses to cloak the reality of the world’s suffering in a cloying fantasy of eternal life, the atheist feels in his bones just how precious life is–and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all.

One wonders just how vast and gratuitous a catastrophe would have to be to shake the world’s faith. The Holocaust did not do it. Neither did the genocide in Rwanda, even with machete-wielding priests among the perpetrators. Five hundred million people died of smallpox in the 20th Century, many of them infants. God’s ways are, indeed, inscrutable. It seems that any fact, no matter how infelicitous, can be rendered compatible with religious faith. In matters of faith, we have kicked ourselves loose of the Earth.

Of course, people of faith regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering. But how else can we understand the claim that God is both omniscient and omnipotent? There is no other way, and it is time for sane human beings to own up to this. This is the age-old problem of theodicy, of course, and we should consider it solved. If God exists, either he can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities or he does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil. Pious readers will now execute the following pirouette: God cannot be judged by merely human standards of morality. But, of course, human standards of morality are precisely what the faithful use to establish God’s goodness in the first place. And any God who could concern himself with something as trivial as gay marriage, or the name by which he is addressed in prayer, is not as inscrutable as all that. If he exists, the God of Abraham is not merely unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.

There is another possibility, of course, and it is both the most reasonable and least odious: The biblical God is a fiction. As Richard Dawkins has observed, we are all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor. Only the atheist has realized that the biblical god is no different. Consequently, only the atheist is compassionate enough to take the profundity of the world’s suffering at face value. It is terrible that we all die and lose everything we love; it is doubly terrible that so many human beings suffer needlessly while alive. That so much of this suffering can be directly attributed to religion–to religious hatreds, religious wars, religious delusions and religious diversions of scarce resources–is what makes atheism a moral and intellectual necessity. It is a necessity, however, that places the atheist at the margins of society. The atheist, by merely being in touch with reality, appears shamefully out of touch with the fantasy life of his neighbors.

The Nature of Belief
According to several recent polls, 22% of Americans are certain that Jesus will return to Earth sometime in the next 50 years. Another 22% believe that he will probably do so. This is likely the same 44% who go to church once a week or more, who believe that God literally promised the land of Israel to the Jews and who want to stop teaching our children about the biological fact of evolution. As President Bush is well aware, believers of this sort constitute the most cohesive and motivated segment of the American electorate. Consequently, their views and prejudices now influence almost every decision of national importance. Political liberals seem to have drawn the wrong lesson from these developments and are now thumbing Scripture, wondering how best to ingratiate themselves to the legions of men and women in our country who vote largely on the basis of religious dogma. More than 50% of Americans have a “negative” or “highly negative” view of people who do not believe in God; 70% think it important for presidential candidates to be “strongly religious.” Unreason is now ascendant in the United States–in our schools, in our courts and in each branch of the federal government. Only 28% of Americans believe in evolution; 68% believe in Satan. Ignorance in this degree, concentrated in both the head and belly of a lumbering superpower, is now a problem for the entire world.

Although it is easy enough for smart people to criticize religious fundamentalism, something called “religious moderation” still enjoys immense prestige in our society, even in the ivory tower. This is ironic, as fundamentalists tend to make a more principled use of their brains than “moderates” do. While fundamentalists justify their religious beliefs with extraordinarily poor evidence and arguments, they at least they make an attempt at rational justification. Moderates, on the other hand, generally do nothing more than cite the good consequences of religious belief. Rather than say that they believe in God because certain biblical prophecies have come true, moderates will say that they believe in God because this belief “gives their lives meaning.” When a tsunami killed a few hundred thousand people on the day after Christmas, fundamentalists readily interpreted this cataclysm as evidence of God’s wrath. As it turns out, God was sending humanity another oblique message about the evils of abortion, idolatry and homosexuality. While morally obscene, this interpretation of events is actually reasonable, given certain (ludicrous) assumptions. Moderates, on the other hand, refuse to draw any conclusions whatsoever about God from his works. God remains a perfect mystery, a mere source of consolation that is compatible with the most desolating evil. In the face of disasters like the Asian tsunami, liberal piety is apt to produce the most unctuous and stupefying nonsense imaginable. And yet, men and women of goodwill naturally prefer such vacuities to the odious moralizing and prophesizing of true believers. Between catastrophes, it is surely a virtue of liberal theology that it emphasizes mercy over wrath. It is worth noting, however, that it is human mercy on display–not God’s–when the bloated bodies of the dead are pulled from the sea. On days when thousands of children are simultaneously torn from their mothers’ arms and casually drowned, liberal theology must stand revealed for what it is–the sheerest of mortal pretenses. Even the theology of wrath has more intellectual merit. If God exists, his will is not inscrutable. The only thing inscrutable in these terrible events is that so many neurologically healthy men and women can believe the unbelievable and think this the height of moral wisdom.

It is perfectly absurd for religious moderates to suggest that a rational human being can believe in God simply because this belief makes him happy, relieves his fear of death or gives his life meaning. The absurdity becomes obvious the moment we swap the notion of God for some other consoling proposition: Imagine, for instance, that a man wants to believe that there is a diamond buried somewhere in his yard that is the size of a refrigerator. No doubt it would feel uncommonly good to believe this. Just imagine what would happen if he then followed the example of religious moderates and maintained this belief along pragmatic lines: When asked why he thinks that there is a diamond in his yard that is thousands of times larger than any yet discovered, he says things like, “This belief gives my life meaning,” or “My family and I enjoy digging for it on Sundays,” or “I wouldn’t want to live in a universe where there wasn’t a diamond buried in my backyard that is the size of a refrigerator.” Clearly these responses are inadequate. But they are worse than that. They are the responses of a madman or an idiot.

Here we can see why Pascal’s wager, Kierkegaard’s leap of faith and other epistemological Ponzi schemes won’t do. To believe that God exists is to believe that one stands in some relation to his existence such that his existence is itself the reason for one’s belief. There must be some causal connection, or an appearance thereof, between the fact in question and a person’s acceptance of it. In this way, we can see that religious beliefs, to be beliefs about the way the world is, must be as evidentiary in spirit as any other. For all their sins against reason, religious fundamentalists understand this; moderates–almost by definition–do not.

The incompatibility of reason and faith has been a self-evident feature of human cognition and public discourse for centuries. Either a person has good reasons for what he strongly believes or he does not. People of all creeds naturally recognize the primacy of reasons and resort to reasoning and evidence wherever they possibly can. When rational inquiry supports the creed it is always championed; when it poses a threat, it is derided; sometimes in the same sentence. Only when the evidence for a religious doctrine is thin or nonexistent, or there is compelling evidence against it, do its adherents invoke “faith.” Otherwise, they simply cite the reasons for their beliefs (e.g. “the New Testament confirms Old Testament prophecy,” “I saw the face of Jesus in a window,” “We prayed, and our daughter’s cancer went into remission”). Such reasons are generally inadequate, but they are better than no reasons at all. Faith is nothing more than the license religious people give themselves to keep believing when reasons fail. In a world that has been shattered by mutually incompatible religious beliefs, in a nation that is growing increasingly beholden to Iron Age conceptions of God, the end of history and the immortality of the soul, this lazy partitioning of our discourse into matters of reason and matters of faith is now unconscionable.

Faith and the Good Society
People of faith regularly claim that atheism is responsible for some of the most appalling crimes of the 20th century. Although 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, religious Germans 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 predominately secular way, the religious demonization of the Jews of Europe continued. (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; to 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. There is no society in recorded history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

While most Americans believe that getting rid of religion is an impossible goal, much of the developed world has already accomplished it. Any account of a “god gene” that causes the majority of Americans to helplessly organize their lives around ancient works of religious fiction must explain why so many inhabitants of other First World societies apparently lack such a gene. The level of atheism throughout the rest of the developed world refutes any argument that religion is somehow a moral necessity. Countries like Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom are among the least religious societies on Earth. According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report (2005) they are also 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 50 nations now ranked lowest in terms of human development are unwaveringly religious. Other analyses paint the same picture: The United States is unique among wealthy democracies in its level of religious literalism and opposition to evolutionary theory; it is also uniquely beleaguered by high rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, STD infection and infant mortality. The same comparison holds true within the United States itself: Southern and Midwestern states, characterized by the highest levels of religious superstition and hostility to evolutionary theory, are especially plagued by the above indicators of societal dysfunction, while the comparatively secular states of the Northeast conform to European norms. 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.

Countries with high levels of atheism also are the most charitable in terms of giving foreign aid to the developing world. The dubious link between Christian literalism and Christian values is also belied by other indices of charity. Consider the ratio in salaries between top-tier CEOs and their average employee: in Britain it is 24 to 1; France 15 to 1; Sweden 13 to 1; in the United States, where 83% of the population believes that Jesus literally rose from the dead, it is 475 to 1. Many a camel, it would seem, expects to squeeze easily through the eye of a needle.

Religion as a Source of Violence
One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the 21st 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–Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc.–and these divisions have become a continuous source of human conflict. Indeed, religion is as much a living spring of violence today as it was at any time in the past. The recent conflicts in Palestine (Jews versus Muslims), the Balkans (Orthodox Serbians versus Catholic Croatians; Orthodox Serbians versus Bosnian and Albanian Muslims), Northern Ireland (Protestants versus Catholics), Kashmir (Muslims versus Hindus), Sudan (Muslims versus Christians and animists), Nigeria (Muslims versus Christians), Ethiopia and Eritrea (Muslims versus Christians), Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists versus Tamil Hindus), Indonesia (Muslims versus Timorese Christians), Iran and Iraq (Shiite versus Sunni Muslims), and the Caucasus (Orthodox Russians versus Chechen Muslims; Muslim Azerbaijanis versus Catholic and Orthodox Armenians) are merely a few cases in point. In these places religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last 10 years.

In a world riven by ignorance, only the atheist refuses to deny the obvious: Religious faith promotes human violence to an astonishing degree. Religion inspires violence in at least two senses: (1) People often kill other human beings because they believe that the creator of the universe wants them to do it (the inevitable psychopathic corollary being that the act will ensure them an eternity of happiness after death). Examples of this sort of behavior are practically innumerable, jihadist suicide bombing being the most prominent. (2) Larger numbers of people are inclined toward religious conflict simply because their religion constitutes the core of their moral identities. One of the enduring pathologies of human culture is the tendency to raise children to fear and demonize other human beings on the basis of religion. Many religious conflicts that seem driven by terrestrial concerns, therefore, are religious in origin. (Just ask the Irish.)

These facts notwithstanding, religious moderates tend to imagine that human conflict is always reducible to a lack of education, to poverty or to political grievances. This is one of the many delusions of liberal piety. To dispel it, we need only reflect on the fact that the Sept. 11 hijackers were college educated and middle class and had no discernable history of political oppression. They did, however, spend an inordinate amount of time at their local mosque talking about the depravity of infidels and about the pleasures that await martyrs in Paradise. How many more architects and mechanical engineers must hit the wall at 400 miles an hour before we admit to ourselves that jihadist violence is not a matter of education, poverty or politics? The truth, astonishingly enough, is this: A person can be so well educated that he can build a nuclear bomb while still believing that he will get 72 virgins in Paradise. Such is the ease with which the human mind can be partitioned by faith, and such is the degree to which our intellectual discourse still patiently accommodates religious delusion. Only the atheist has observed what should now be obvious to every thinking human being: If we want to uproot the causes of religious violence we must uproot the false certainties of religion.

Why is religion such a potent source of human violence?

  • Our religions are intrinsically incompatible with one another. Either Jesus rose from the dead and will be returning to Earth like a superhero or not; either the Koran is the infallible word of God or it isn’t. Every religion makes explicit claims about the way the world is, and the sheer profusion of these incompatible claims creates an enduring basis for conflict.
  • There is no other sphere of discourse in which human beings so fully articulate their differences from one another, or cast these differences in terms of everlasting rewards and punishments. Religion is the one endeavor in which us-them thinking achieves a transcendent significance. If a person really believes that calling God by the right name can spell the difference between eternal happiness and eternal suffering, then it becomes quite reasonable to treat heretics and unbelievers rather badly. It may even be reasonable to kill them. If a person thinks there is something that another person can say to his children that could put their souls in jeopardy for all eternity, then the heretic next door is actually far more dangerous than the child molester. The stakes of our religious differences are immeasurably higher than those born of mere tribalism, racism or politics.
  • Religious faith is a conversation-stopper. Religion is only area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give evidence in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet these beliefs often determine what they live for, what they will die for, and–all too often–what they will kill for. This is a problem, because when the stakes are high, human beings have a simple choice between conversation and violence. Only a fundamental willingness to be reasonable–to have our beliefs about the world revised by new evidence and new arguments–can guarantee that we will keep talking to one another. Certainty without evidence is necessarily divisive and dehumanizing. While there is no guarantee that rational people will always agree, the irrational are certain to be divided by their dogmas.

It seems profoundly unlikely that we will heal the divisions in our world simply by multiplying the opportunities for interfaith dialogue. The endgame for civilization cannot be mutual tolerance of patent irrationality. While all parties to liberal religious discourse have agreed to tread lightly over those points where their worldviews would otherwise collide, these very points remain perpetual sources of conflict for their coreligionists. Political correctness, therefore, does not offer an enduring basis for human cooperation. If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith.

When we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith; when we have no reasons, or bad ones, we have lost our connection to the world and to one another. Atheism is nothing more than a commitment to the most basic standard of intellectual honesty: One’s convictions should be proportional to one’s evidence. Pretending to be certain when one isn’t–indeed, pretending to be certain about propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable–is both an intellectual and a moral failing. Only the atheist has realized this. The atheist is simply a person who has perceived the lies of religion and refused to make them his own.