Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

When I was in 9th grade, I was asked in social studies class to name the person whom I most admire. That's a simple task on its face, but I found it exceedingly difficult. I have the same difficulty when asked to name my favorite movie. It's not that I can't find a person or movie that I like, but rather that I am not the sort of person who ranks things.

A few months ago, when I participated in something called the American Values Survey, I was again asked the most admired person question, but this time I had no trouble coming up with a name. Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has done more than any other person to promote and energize atheism in recent memory, and atheists in the United States are more confident and more vocal then ever before as a result. His recent book The God Delusion not only solidified my nascent atheism, but also inspired me to take a greater interest in the subject, ultimately leading to this blog. Superbly reasoned and elegantly witty, The God Delusion makes an unapologetically devastating (from a theists point of view) intellectual and moral case for atheism. I recommend the book to everyone. Dawkins' web site,, is also an excellent resource for a wide array of topics related to both religion and evolution. Dawkins is a top tier scientist and author who rose to prominence by proposing, in The Selfish Gene, the now widely accepted idea that the gene is the principal unit upon which evolution acts. His success in advancing the cause of atheism is in no small part due to the gravitas his name carries. It is a measure of how far atheism has to go that most Americans have nevertheless never heard of him.

My favorite atheist writer is actually not Richard Dawkins but American neuroscientist Sam Harris. His books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation are unparalleled, as are many of his other writings and speeches available at his web site, The best introduction to atheism available on the web (that I am aware of) is his essay An Atheist Manifesto. If you can get past the title -- it has a unfortunate tendency to evoke A Communist Manifesto, or a deranged anarchist writing an antigovernment rant in a remote cabin -- it is an excellent, and fairly quick, read.

Physicist Victor Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis and journalist Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great are also excellent and highly recommended books. Author and journalist Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, ostensibly about Mormonism, is a fascinating case study of how religion begins, and how it can spiral out of control and spawn abuse and violence. Others that I have not yet read but come highly recommended by others include Daniel Dennet's Breaking the Spell, Dan Barker's Losing Faith in Faith, and Ayan Hirsi Ali's Infidel. Although I have only so far read small parts of their works, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the freethinkers of yesteryear such a Bertrand Russell and Robert Ingersoll. Lest I forget, the greatest argument for atheism ever written (or the most ironic, at least) is the book I am currently reading, the Bible.

For those of you with the time to listen to podcasts, I can recommend Point of Inquiry, Freethought Radio, The Non-Prophets, The Atheist Experience, and The Way of Reason. Some of these podcasts are better than others, but all are worth listening to. Excellent web resources include the aforementioned Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris web sites, PZ Meyers' Pharyngula blog, The Secular Web, TalkOrigins, and the Iron Chariots Wiki.

Although I believe I have some novel ideas to add to the debate, I gratefully acknowledge that I draw heavily from the aforementioned sources, among others. I truly stand on the shoulders of giants.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Just One More Definition

It occurs to me that I also need to define the term religion. My definition is "a system of beliefs involving worship of or reverence for the supernatural, divine, or sacred." Religion also encompasses the institutions, doctrines, scriptures, and practices associated with those beliefs.

Terminology tends to be a dry subject, and I do not wish to dwell on minutiae. However, terminology is important for establishing a common framework for discussion and avoiding misunderstandings. In arriving at my definitions, I have applied 3 principal criteria:
  1. A definition should be defensible based on word etymology and definitions given in major dictionaries.
  2. A definition should be in common usage.
  3. A definition should be useful, in that it serves to draw distinctions important to the discussion.

I sometimes come across people using the word religion to mean any activity pursued with zeal or devotion. For example, devoted fans may be said to watch football "religiously" on Sundays. People who use this definition tend to describe me as religious for being passionate about my atheism. I could object to this definition on the basis of all 3 of my criteria, but I object mainly on the basis of the third. If religion encompasses everything from football fans to fundamentalist Christians, it is a nearly useless term. Yes, I share passion and conviction with fundamentalist Christians, but there is also a world of difference between us, and it is that very difference that I wish to highlight and explore. Calling atheism (or at least passionate atheism) a religion is an exercise in conflation and obfuscation. Atheism is no more a religion than baldness is a hair color.

I have particularly little patience for people who engage in word games, casually tossing around loaded terms in ways that violate my criteria without acknowledging this. Indeed, word gamers tend to keep definitions vague, so that they can be shifted when convenient -- a subtle form of a logical fallacy known as equivocation, whereby a word changes definition in the course of an argument. For example, a word gamer might say "God is love. Don't you believe in love?"; or "God is in those deep and profound mysteries of the universe. Surely you agree that there are things we don't understand?"; or "God can be thought of as a metaphor for the meaning of life. Surely you don't think that life is a meaningless, pointless waste?" If the responder agrees that yes, love exists; yes, there are things we don't understand; or yes, life has meaning; the questioner shifts the definition of God and takes the response as vindication for the God of the Bible. The ontological argument for the existence of God is a word game, relying on a vague and shifting definition of "perfection" (or "greatness", "existence", etc., depending on the version used).