Tag Archives: Philosophy

A Conversation on Atheism and Extremism

The idea of atheism is so easy to understand, but seems to be misunderstood by most. I attribute that misunderstanding to a combination of lack of education and willful (possibly unconscious) misunderstanding due to the threat atheism poses to theistic belief systems.

I’m going to begin posting interesting conversations I have on religion, including atheism, for the potential benefit of others. This conversation began with my posting of the Oatmeal comic below.


Commenter: Oh… I thought the atheist extremist was one killing off 25% of the population in the genocide of Cambodia in the seventies, or one causing starvation and death for millions in the Soviet Union under the collectivisations of Stalin. But ok, there are extremists of different kinds.

Me: You’re expressing a very common misconception.

As the comic points out, atheism isn’t a prescriptive worldview, like Christianity and Islam. Atheism is descriptive, not prescriptive. So atheists are free to do whatever they want. As the comic notes, atheists tend to be well educated and peaceful people who love science. The causation flows the other way, of course. People who are well educated, peaceful, and love science tend to reject religion because it doesn’t conform to their understanding of the world and doesn’t serve their needs.

Your examples depict totalitarian socialism, not atheism. Atheism was only a part of those movements because they were anti-theistic. The leaders persecuted religions for the same reason they persecuted specific cultures, intellectuals, and artists, because the leaders considered them threats to their absolute power.

Hopefully this clarifies things.

Commenter: I thought we were talking about extremists. Are you really claiming that Christians and Muslims in general are not educated and peaceful?

Me: You’re misrepresenting my points, or perhaps misunderstanding me. I’ll restate in simpler terms.

1. Atheism doesn’t tell you what to do. There is no such thing as an atheist extremist. It’s nonsensical to have someone have an extreme lack of belief.
2. There are certainly anti-theists, but those are generally people who hate one or more religions, often the middle eastern monotheistic ones. Atheism does not cause anti-theism.
3. There are totalitarians, but atheism does not cause totalitarian thinking.

Commenter: I do not think I misunderstand or misrepresent. However, I think Oatmeal gives a twist for humorous purposes, which you seem to think reflects reality.

Talking about extremists there have historically been virulent anti-religous movements, inspired by quotes like “religion is the opium of the people.” These extremists were inspired by atheism and atheists movements, and they caused the deaths of millions. This kind of atheism does tell you what to do.

I do not know what you mean by “atheism does not cause anti-theism.” Surely anti-theism and anti-religiosity would not be possible without atheism. It is a necessary (but not on its own sufficient) condition to create extreme anti-religiosity.

Likewise, religion is not a sufficient condition to cause religious extremism.

Oatmeal uses humour – I sure smiled a brief moment, but it is not by any means a representation of reality.

And stepping on the border of Godwin’s law: imagine if the atheist Russians Communists and unreligious German Nazis had been overtaken by moderate religious figures. WWII would simply not have taken place.

Likewise WWI would not have take place if people had not had the nationalist fervour they had, and if they instead had been inspired by moderate religion.

Me: Because you insist on erroneously defining atheism and interpreting history to support your faulty worldview, I don’t see an advantage to continuing this conversation. Good bye.

I wish I could say the willful misunderstanding and ignorance of history displayed by this commenter was rare, but it’s the rule rather than the exception. The above is not at all my best writing, but I think it’s clear enough that I’m presenting the conversation verbatim so you can see what actually transpired.

The original G+ post I used as the basis for this post can be found here.

Should we respect all beliefs?

I’m reposting an intriguing question I encountered on G+. The original post is first, including a beautiful picture as well as a comment by Sam Harris, followed by my response.

Should we respect all Beliefs? Here’s an interesting take by Sam Harris…

Consider for a moment this notion that you should respect other people’s beliefs. Where else in our discourse do we encounter this?

When was the last time anyone was admonished to respect another person’s beliefs about history, or biology, or physics? We do not respect people’s beliefs; we evaluate their reasons.

Illusion Art 4

Harris’ take on this is thought provoking and tempting to follow, isn’t it? My response is below.

We don’t need to respect people’s beliefs. We do need to respect people. It’s fine, and very desirable, to critique a set of beliefs. That’s fundamentally different than criticizing a person for their beliefs.

If you critique beliefs by analyzing them and pointing out deficiencies as well as strengths, especially in a process of dialogue, then you gain understanding of the framework in which those beliefs exist, and you also allow the person holding those beliefs room to engage you openly and examine their beliefs if they’re willing. If you criticize the person, then you shut down the possibility of dialogue and place them in a defensive stance, focused on defending themselves and their beliefs.

What do you think?

Here’s a link to my reshare of the original post – https://plus.google.com/+ChristopherLamke/posts/jBEWpqBvbdV – The comments on mine and especially the original are worth reading if you’re exploring this topic.

Religion Satisfies a Human Need

Religion is neither inherently good nor bad. A great deal of good as well as evil is done in the name of religion. Whether the good outweighs the evil or vice versa is unanswerable, but I note that both good and evil are done outside the bounds of religion and as far as I can tell, independently of it, so religion is neither necessary nor sufficient for good or evil.

My focus here is on religion as a way of providing meaning to life. To live full lives, human beings require a framework of meaning, something to help them understand why things happen and why they are the way they are. Religion, as a belief system or fundamental worldview, clearly provides meaning to a large portion of the world’s population and thus fulfills a basic human need.

Religion provides comfort from the realities of sickness, loss and death, and can make human life more joyful and less painful. Anything with this power deserves our support, particularly if it’s possible to maximize the joy and minimize the pain provided by the system. It’s possible, though very difficult, to do this with religion.

I understand statements like the one Chris O’ Dowd makes below, and I’m frustrated daily by the evil done in the name of religion as well as the way in which religion slows or destroys progress. But I disagree with both the prediction he makes and his desire for it to come true.


I don’t think we’ll cleanse the world of religion anytime soon, and I don’t think we should try. Religion is one way of providing structure and meaning to life, something all of us need. Many people are constitutionally incapable of creating their own meaning through reflection on the world or study of philosophy. Different structures are suitable for different minds.

I prefer a rational approach to giving our lives meaning, but it’s impractical to base our standard of meaning entirely on what is true or rational. Many of the most important aspects of life are not rational.

It’s worth sharing a comment Peter Billing left on my Google Plus post of this graphic:

I agree we shouldn’t try.  Change like that will always be organic.  But I think he’s right that it will.  Offensive might be too strong a word, though.  Probably more like pitiable or incredulous.  

Rightly or wrongly – and YMMV wildly – religion seems to me to be much more of a benign mob mentality thing.  Whereas racism I tend to attribute more to an individual malicious intent.  Without wishing to invoke Godwin, I suspect in time it’ll be more like how we think of the German’s during the Nazi era.  More ‘how could they have fallen for it’ than ‘man, those guys were bigots’

I think Peter may be right. I think we may organically move away from religion, but some things need to happen first.

Religion serves a purpose. Even today, when we’ve come so far technologically, decay and death are just as inevitable. All thinking people must look for meaning, and religions are ready-made boxes of meaning, with all the rules and structures necessary (in most religions) for fending off the fear of death, knowing how to live without questioning, and satisfying the human tendency to tribal behavior and aggression against an other.

When I see the followers of militant Islam and Christianity, and the absurdly constrained lives of Orthodox Jews, I can’t think of anything non religious that can begin to take religion’s place for these people. I wish I could. Particularly striking are cases like a friend’s brother, who left a wealthy and highly educated life in the United States for life as an Orthodox Jew in an Israeli community, where he studies ancient documents and follows rules that govern every aspect of his life. The only explanation I can come up with for this behavior is fleeing freedom. Some of us are not constituted to live freely. The existential angst that accompanies an awareness of constant freedom can be maddening to some of us. Religion removes this burden from those who cannot carry it.

What Is Essential Is Invisible to the Eye

Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

The quote above is from The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. The best English translation I’ve found is “Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” This tattoo may well be my all-time favorite.




One Thing Computers Cannot Do

The most creative innovations of the digital age came from those who were able to connect the arts and sciences. They believed that beauty mattered.

Steve Jobs Speaks At Apple Web Developer Conference

This short essay from Walter Isaacson is well worth reading. I believe he’s right about the necessary intersection between art and science. I like to say that science makes our lives possible but art makes them worth living.

Capital Oppresses Labor


Tolstoy was exactly right.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Welfare Capitalism, as practiced in most of the developed world, allows the creative destruction of capitalism to proceed while shielding individuals from its excesses.

Supporting capitalism does not require that we support a free for all in which the capitalists use people and natural resources as they will. Capitalism left to run its natural course results in the destruction of individual life, liberty, and ultimately the environment we need to survive. A serious capitalist will acknowledge the need for strong government regulation of capitalist practices, even as he fights against those regulations that limit his own profits.

The hard truth about getting old


This Salon article is a good read and could be starting material for a much deeper discussion, one we should be having among ourselves and also publicly. I’m sharing it because I had a short but rewarding conversation with a friend on Google Plus around this article.

It’s usually a surprise to me when I realize people are treating me differently because of my age. It just feels strange to be seen differently because I’m 20 or more years older or younger than someone else. I try to avoid seeing others this way, but it’s a natural tendency.

As humans, we love to label things, people included, and that includes labeling others according to age. This is particularly problematic because physical age captures so little of a person’s essence.

Becoming ageless by living for timeless goals is a worthy goal for life. For most of us, that means playing a small part in making the world better, dedicating ourselves to improving the lives of at least a few people.

One thing I love about the internet is that people, for the most part, perceive you according to the traits you express, rather than as an age, a race, a citizen of some place. The technology allows us to abstract away (to some extent) the innate aspects of those we meet, letting us focus on their character, intelligence, and general persona. I see this as a wonderful advance.