The tragedy at the heart of New Atheism

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I remember sitting up and taking notice of something Richard Dawkins once said, which was to this effect: “When aliens arrive here, the first thing they will ask is: ‘Have they discovered the theory of evolution yet?’”

The only problem with this quotation is that I can find no reference to Professor Dawkins actually saying it, or the occasion and context of him saying it. He may not have said it at all. If anyone can give me a reference (the link above, which is hardly satisfactory, is all I can find) then I would be grateful. It would be interesting to unpack the meaning of the words.

Hunting down the quotation, I did of course come across others, collected, for example, here. Again the lack of context makes them rather strange, and one wonders what so many of them mean. Words like “religion” are not of themselves univocal. It all depends what you mean by religion.

Here is a saying that I find particularly problematic: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

First of all, notice the use of the words “precisely” and “observe”. It is surely impossible to observe the universe in its entirety. We observe parts, though we may intuit wholes. But these observations are not going to be precise – not if they are observations of “the universe”. So the use of the words “observe” and “precisely” here strikes me as giving the statement a scientific veracity that it cannot possibly claim, for this statement seems neither falsifiable or verifiable.

What the statement seems to be conveying, rather than a scientific observable truth, is an existential statement of belief about the nature of the universe. While Christians believe that at the heart of the universe there is Love, Professor Dawkins makes an opposing and opposite statement. But if the first statement is unscientific, so surely is the second one as well.

Written By: Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith
continue to source article at catholicherald.co.uk

57 COMMENTS

  1. I remember sitting up and taking notice of something Richard Dawkins once said, which was to this effect: “When aliens arrive here, the first thing they will ask is: ‘Have they discovered the theory of evolution yet?’”The only problem with this quotation is that I can find no reference to Professor Dawkins actually saying it, or the occasion and context of him saying it. He may not have said it at all. If anyone can give me a reference (the link above, which is hardly satisfactory, is all I can find) then I would be grateful.

    It’s the very first paragraph of my very first, and best known, book, The Selfish Gene.

  2. “There’s probably no god.” is the most scientific thing the human mind can state about the idea any god (aka myth) exists.

    There is no mind of god humans have ever known. Humans defer to their own mind to make such claims.

    There is no moral code or any code at all that a mind of god has that connects with ours about universal rulings for all humans. These are always claims made by human minds!

    Essentially any god is a spurious claim by human minds that proffer to dominate billions of others minds with their mind. This IS the science. Thus the statement is as close to NO god as can be scientifically evidenced. 

    God is that mind space that competes for dominance over other mind states absent any measurable evidence whatsoever. Now that we can measure things so well, it’s no surprise religion claims warp speed, from a vehicle built upon a donkey.

  3. I have to say, Professor Dawkins, that I deeply admire your patience, good will, and resolve to put up with so many stupid attacks like this.

    I confess that I don’t have that level of tolerance. I have just spent a couple of days trying to reason with a believer who adamantly insists that Einstein was a deist and dismisses evolution as “purely random processes.” A complete waste of time.

    There are times when trying to convey truth is like talking to the wall. Unfortunately, the particular wall above ends up on the web and in print.

  4. Just because you find comfort in believing in a Divine Providence doesn’t make it true. Nature is pitilessly indifferent and we’ve got to deal with that.

    The quote about the aliens is in Chapter 1 of The Selfish Gene: If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’

  5. He also used that word “if”, instead of “since there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil”, yaddayaddayadda. This tiny word leaves open the scientifically healthy door of ambiguous postulation.

  6. At least you have people that are willing to talk about it. My believer friends refuse to talk. It’s always the same: “Well, you can believe whatever you want, but I don’t wanna get into it with you.”
    Why the fuggin’ fuck not?!?
    So, at least be glad your getting them to speak up.

  7. The author seems to fret about the first part of the ad on the bus “there probably is no God” and ignores the second part “now stop worrying and enjoy life.”  Finding purpose from a God that you imagine and create out of your own consciousness is no better than finding purpose with your imagination and reason.  In fact I prefer the latter.  Cuts out the middle man and doesn’t leave oneself vulnerable to exploitation by those who pretend to speak for your imaginary God.  So stop worrying, and enjoy life. 

  8. I would offer an analogy:
    A games console is a computer with a purpose. Because of that there are fundimental limits to what I can do to me, imposed by its creators.
    A PC/Mac is a computer without a purpose. Because of that the only limit to what I can do with it is my own imagination, and the time and other resources at my disposal.

    Living in a universe full of possibility, unlimited by some kind of celestial EULA, may be many things, including as unprovable as any religious view, but it is not a tragic view of reality.

  9. If you google ““When aliens arrive here, the first thing they will ask is: ‘Have they discovered the theory of evolution yet?’” the second result you get is the source of the quote. Amazing research by our friend Alex.

  10. Here is a saying that I find particularly problematic: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

    First of all, notice the use of the words “precisely” and “observe”.
    It is surely impossible to observe the universe in its entirety. We observe parts, though we may intuit wholes. But these observations are not going to be precise – not if they are observations of “the universe” .

    Literacy classes are available from Education Departments!  The “universe we observe”, does not claim to describe the whole universe!  As any astronomer can explain, it describes the observed parts of the universe.  That is the “Observable Universe” – (of which the author is probably profoundly ignorant anyway)

    So the use of the words “observe” and “precisely” here strikes me as giving the statement a scientific veracity that it cannot possibly claim, for this statement seems neither falsifiable or verifiable.

    After the reading and comprehension lessons, book some on logical reasoning and basic scientific method!

    But if the first statement is unscientific, so surely is the second one as well.

    Yep!  An urgent need for basic education well is illustrated here!

    If the author’s first misinterpretation is unscientific, so surely is the second one as well.

  11. The tragedy at the heart of New Atheism

    Either all atheism is tragic, or none of it is; age is irrelevant.

    Belief in an ordered universe is hard to reconcile with a tragic view of life

    Which will only be a problem for anyone who believes in both; I just believe in the first one.

    The only problem with this quotation is that I can find no reference to Professor Dawkins actually saying it

    Firstly, then why mention it? Secondly, it’s the second sentence of Chapter 1 of *The
    Selfish Gene*, so Lucie-Smith can’t pretend he’s done any research. It took me
    *seconds* to find out where it was. Thirdly, it’s irrelevant to this article anyway.

    It is surely impossible to observe the universe in its entirety. We observe parts, though we may intuit wholes. But these observations are not going to be precise – not if they are observations of “the universe”. So the use of the words “observe” and “precisely” here strikes me as giving the statement a scientific veracity that it cannot possibly claim, for this statement seems neither falsifiable or verifiable.

    If you found exceptions when you looked elsewhere, that would falsify it, so it’s falsifiable. While universal generalizations aren’t verifiable, they gain scientific veracity from surviving all of the many opportunities for falsification they’ve had, so this idea has scientific veracity. Don’t act like science can discover no more than Hume thought it could.

    While Christians believe that at the heart of the universe there is Love, Professor Dawkins makes an opposing and opposite statement.

    As I have explained before, Professor Dawkins meant that the universe doesn’t endow things in the universe with purpose, not that things in the universe don’t endow themselves or other things in the universe with purpose. But I can’t expect friars to understand that distinction; after all, if they did, they wouldn’t take seriously the cosmological argument, which commits the same fallacy of composition.

    opposing interpretations of experience

    Experience is not interpreted; it is consistent with some hypotheses and not others, and some hypotheses gain scientific veracity for surviving all of many opportunities for falsification.

     the Nietzschean vision is one that not only contradicts the idea of Divine Providence, but it also makes science of any sort nonsensical, in that it seems to deny intrinsic meaning to physical phenomena

    Firstly, RD is an atheist, so there’s no problem with his ideas contradicting divine ones; secondly, science doesn’t require phenomena to have meaning, only discoverable properties. I return to this hole in Lucie-Smith’s understanding below, when replying to a repetition of the argument on his part.

    Is this what Professor Dawkins believes? Is this what modern atheists believe?

    Why don’t you ask atheists what they think rather than open-letter conjecturing it? Theists do this all the time; it’s extremely patronising.

    if he believes this how can he believe in an ordered universe, one that is susceptible to rational and scientific observation?

    Because “no magic man had a plan for how to use the universe” doesn’t imply “the universe doesn’t obey Noether’s theorem”. Maybe when Lucie-Smith knows as much about science as he does about literature he’ll understand that response.

  12. The difference between saying that the universe is grounded on the love of a magic sky-tyrant and saying that the universe is, at bottom, indifferent to human concerns, is that indifference is the default, only and definitional state of unconscious things, and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary it is the one we must alight upon. Were the subject of the inquiry an egg whisk or a bag of sherbet lemons rather than the universe, I doubt there would be any of this silliness. Is the contention that the sherbet lemons secretly love us with all the transcendent majesty of the divine just as valid an interpretation of reality as the notion that they just sit there in the bag with utter indifference to our lives?

    But see the clumsily executed trick this person pulls? Nietzche thought the universe was indifferent, Richard Dawkins thinks the universe is indifferent, both hold professorships, therefore, hey presto, Richard Dawkins is Friedrich Nietzche. Without the moustache at any rate. I’m pretty sure Nietzche did not, in fact, believe that the subjectivity of human meaning-finding paradigms precludes the existence of an objective reality about which we can learn with science. But even if he did then it doesn’t follow that this is what Richard also believes.

    And I thought basic syllogisms were supposed the one thing catholic “thinkers” actually did well…

  13. Well past the Midgley Horizon then.

    Come on, there must be literally  three or four pages of front matter and publisher’s blurb before you get to the first paragraph. And those ISBN numbers are very off-putting.

  14. Oh goodness, someone needs to teach Fr. Lucie-Smith how to use Google. Even though the “quotation” in question isn’t an exact quotation of that paragraph in The Selfish Gene, if you paste his “quotation” into the Google search box (without the quotation marks) along with “Richard Dawkins” (without the quotation marks), the *third* hit for that search is a .pdf of the first chapter of The Selfish Gene. Seriously, it took me less than a minute to come up with that result. It wasn’t difficult. I’m not sure how Fr. Lucie-Smith could have missed it during his “hunting” process. 

  15. I liked that one of the people commenting on the Catholic Herald article mixed up Richard Dawkins with Stephen Hawking. I’m sure I can recall RD being interviewed on some tv or radio programme and saying that this happens all the time.

    Secondly, surely when Richard said “The universe we obseve has precisely the properties we should expect etc”, he was speaking about that part of the cosmos which our limited technology has allowed us to study, and wasn’t referring to the whole thing. Or did Fr Lucie-Smith think Richard was saying “The universe, we observe, has the properties etc”?

  16.  Anybody who thinks, “at the heart of the universe there is Love”, clearly has no grasp of cosmology or astronomy.  The “heart of love” is probably between the stomach of flatulence and the pickled liver of excess spirit! – Where ever that is in the universe, galaxies, or nebulae!

    This is just the usual theist “science does not know everything, so now I can make up any substitute crap I like”!  – Sheeples will swallow it!

  17. Why can’t people like the one in this OP understand: “The
    truth is all that matters.” To my mind, the only way to find that truth is
    through experiment and observation. I think we call that science. Why do so many
    humans act illogically about this?

  18. This article is an insult to English literature as well as to science. Does this priest really imagine that Macbeth’s words of despair, in the famous “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, uttered after he has learnt of his wife’s suicide, reflect what Shakespeare believed? Isn’t he aware that the good guys win at the end of the play, and the tyrant dies?

    As for the quote from Webster’s “Duchess of Malfi”, it has been torn out of context. The words “Look you, the stars shine still” are spoken by the malcontent Bosola, who is one of the people trying to torment the Duchess into insanity! 

    Bosola has just shown the Duchess the bodies of her husband and children (they are in fact waxworks, but she doesn’t know that). The Duchess is understandable upset, and the following dialogue takes place:

    DUCHESS: … I’ll go pray, no,
    I’ll go curse.

    BOSOLA: O, fie!

    DUCHESS: I could curse the stars.

    BOSOLA: O, fearful!

    DUCHESS: And those three smiling seasons of the year
    Into a Russian winter, nay the world
    To its first chaos.

    BOSOLA: Look you, the stars shine still.

    DUCHESS: O, but you must remember,
    My curse hath a great way to go.

    In this context, the quote does not support the priest’s argument at all.

  19. “While Christians believe that at the heart of the universe there is Love, Professor Dawkins makes an opposing and opposite statement.”

    I’m not sure that’s true. Let’s say “Survival of the fittest” is a universal law. It was tragically misunderstood by eugenicists and wickedly appropriated by totalitarian regimes to mean the human race would best survive and thrive by selfish behaviour. 

    In The Selfish Gene, Professor Dawkins consistently finds the opposite is true, that ‘selfish’ genes ‘act’ on us, their host organism, to behave altruistically. Time and again the book considers different species and finds broadly mutually altruistic behaviour results in the best possible outcome for successful evolution (though there is no Utopia as such because individual selfish outliers always redress the balance).

    But of course we are not consciously aware of the urge to propagate our genes so what acts on us to behave altruistically? Dawkins didn’t say, perhaps because it is so obvious, that it is love. 

    Love drives the urge to mate and to protect and nurture the young. The desire to love and be loved, to be thought well of, builds friendship and community. Humans despair without it. Mammals are born helpless, human mammals the most helpless of all. Infants would barely survive a day without constant nurturing, let alone the hours and days and years of parental commitment it takes to successfully bring a human to maturity. Obviously it’s impossible to know for sure if other species experience love but they certainly engage in similarly selfless behaviour.

    So. Could the human species have evolved to its current level of consciousness without love? Natural selection is all about random mutation so the theory of Intelligent Design just doesn’t stack up. The notion that there was blueprint of a human at the dawn of time is incompatible with Darwinism, and as Dawkins observed in my favourite line of the book “Today the theory of evolution is about as much open to doubt as the theory that the earth goes around the sun.”

    But evolution is not just about random mutation, natural selection is governed by a law dubbed Survival of the Fittest. If Dawkins is correct and Survival of the Fittest actually means Survival of the Altruistic, is “Love made us” also an observable truth as well as a Christian assertion?

    Christian teaching, though undermined by rigid authoritarian dogma, is at its best about urging the propensity for selfishness on to an ideal of universal and constant altruism because it is the best outcome. Dawkins’ examination of ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ game theory in the closing chapters of The Selfish Gene finds the same strategy to be the most successful.

    Of course while there are degrees of liberal and orthodox Christianity, and degrees of militant and humanist atheism, ultimately the faithful believe the human capacity for love somehow slips its carbon-based moorings, and atheists don’t.

    I suppose almost by definition the experience of prayer is absent from atheist discourse. The God Delusion didn’t examine it in detail aside from noting that a sudden and heightened interest in the spiritual is a symptom of oncoming psychosis. This is true but it has nothing to do with the ordinary experience of prayer. Belief in God is not like belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy because deep prayer or meditation specifically induces a sense of being loved, a visceral sense of being held in something infinitely compassionate. There are many reasons people believe in God, all except this most compelling one are addressed and debunked in The God Delusion. 

    Personally I think the capacity for ‘spirituality’ is more than just a cultural meme, that it is rooted in our neurological make-up. Perhaps that state of sublime love achieved by prayer or meditation evolved as some sort of neurological diamond-cutting of the constant craving for love. Perhaps love really does exist on some mysterious external matrix and we so far only recognise it in the way a newborn apparently comes to recognise quite quickly when it is held by someone who loves it. We just don’t know, there has never been anything other than extensive anecdotal evidence to suggest the latter.

  20. While Christians believe that at the heart of the universe there is Love, Professor Dawkins makes an opposing and opposite statement. But if the first statement is unscientific, so surely is the second one as well.

    A recent discovery of the LHC is the Higgs Bosom, the so-called “Love Particle”. This particle gives love to all other particles and is the cause of their mutual attraction. This explains why the universe cares about us, why nobody ever really dies and why we will all live happily ever after. Ahhhhh!

  21. GreenClouds4
    Welcome to the discussion. You have clearly thought matters through a lot better than the author of the OP.

    Perhaps love really does exist on some mysterious external matrix and we
    so far only recognise it in the way a newborn apparently comes to
    recognise quite quickly when it is held by someone who loves it.

    All the evidence shows that love is about the relationships between living creatures, as materially operated by electrochemical activity in the brain and genetic programming.

     It is also a feature of some living things on Earth, which as a planet, is  an infinitesimally tiny part of the universe, ( Not “the heart of it”)  – with humans having existed for a tiny fraction of the life-time of the universe and the planet. 

    The “heart of it” claim is just a revision of the historical geocentric claims, which after refutation, have been up-graded to homo-centric claims.

    Belief in God is not like belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy
    because deep prayer or meditation specifically induces a sense of being
    loved,

    I can see how people would feel that way, but perhaps no more so than a child expecting a visit from Santa!  There is alway the question of, why the assumption of a particular god, when there are so many of them?

    There is also neurological research on the relationships between prayer, meditation and brain activity, which you may find interesting.

    “Since our research shows that people with this impairment are more
    spiritual, this suggests spiritual experiences are associated with a
    decreased focus on the self. This is consistent with many religious
    texts that suggest people should concentrate on the well-being of others
    rather than on themselves.”

    Johnstone says the right side of the brain is associated with
    self-orientation, whereas the left side is associated with how
    individuals relate to others. Although Johnstone studied people with
    brain injury, previous studies of Buddhist meditators and Franciscan
    nuns with normal brain function have shown that people can learn to
    minimize the functioning of the right side of their brains to increase
    their spiritual connections during meditation and prayer.

    In addition, Johnstone measured the frequency of participants’
    religious practices, such as how often they attended church or listened
    to religious programs. He measured activity in the frontal lobe and
    found a correlation between increased activity in this part of the brain
    and increased participation in religious practices.

    “This finding indicates that spiritual experiences are likely associated with different parts of the brain,” Johnstone said. – http://www.sciencedaily.com/re… 

  22. So what if the universe is “pitiless” and “indifferent”? What bloody difference does it mean when you are crossing the road, or meeting friends, or attending a birth?  The fact that the universe doesn’t care, in no way invalidates the “meaning” that  we place on our own existences. Ask a fly if it wants to be swatted and it will reply with remarkable aerial gymnastics. Ask a mosquito why it sucked your blood and she will no doubt tell you that she was completely pitiless and indifferent to the itchy lump she was causing in your body, but that she needed the blood in order to lay her eggs. Ask a stoat what flavour of rabbits it likes and it will reply, the nearest one.

    Ask a theologian the meaning of “meaning”, – then sit back and drink a couple of pan-galactic gargle blasters!

  23. It all boils down to a lack of imagination, fear,  and lack of initiative in taking action in creating meaning in one’s own life. People like the author seem to feel that there is Love at the center of everything which in turn would make everything OK. Take away all the personifications, Love, and  meanings imposed by religion and everything is neutral until we personally find joy, purpose and meaning on our own terms – if we choose consciously.

    It’s as if the religious need lines or boundaries for coloring in their crayon book of life. Color within the lines, following the rules, and you get a pretty picture that doesn’t express the individual at all; it lacks originality and truth. When faced with a blank page the religious freeze up and are overwhelmed by the sterility of the empty page.  “Oh no, where are the lines? I don’t know what to do. There is nothing here.” But every artist and artist of their own life knows that a blank page represents endless possibilities and potential. Every artist is faced with the void, the blank canvas, the white piece of paper, the beginning. It’s a scarey place to be – not knowing, questioning yourself, fearing you’ll spoil the precious white canvas, but to create something worthwhile and profound or personally meaningful, we need to go through this journey.  Put it some boundaries on the page and unnatural, stunted roadblocks to creativity manifests.

  24. For myself the most objectionable part of the article is deciding that Richard Dawkins MUST be a nihilist in the mould of Nietzsche simply because he is an atheist. The author seems to have decided what an atheist is like without consulting any of the writings of any atheists.

    While one has the right to their own opinion, I prefer to form opinions after a gather a few facts about a subject.

  25. People don’t like to admit that they are mediocre – so they say they are God’s immortal child.
    People are afraid of what they don’t know – so they make up stories to fill in the blanks.
    People expect people to be nice to them – so they create Hell for those who offend them.
    People expect rewards – because they feel entitled, special, and deserving of a Heaven.
    People expect others to cooperate and conform to a group’s standards -  so they demonize the outsider.

  26. This is a comment by ‘Tiende Landeplage’ from the thread “Richard Dawkins: an end to mythmaking?”, but I find it to fit just as nicely here:

    Editor to article writer: “We’ll pay you to fill up our pages with words.”

  27. Thanks Alan4discussion.

    I wish I had a copy of The Selfish Gene to hand. There are bits I’m half-remembering so I hope I’m not misrepresenting. I think towards the end of the books Dawkins writes that whilst intelligent life may have evolved in other parts of the universe in completely different ways, for example from an electromagnatic base rather than a carbon one, he posits that life would always evolve through limited individual life span and successive generations. 

    This suggests to me that if there is life elsewhere, natural selection and evolution is a universal law played out across the cosmos albeit in ways we can’t imagine. The author of the post didn’t say that humans or the earth is at the heart of the universe but rather that Christians (indeed all major religions) believe love is at the heart of the universe. 

    Of course by “Love” the Catholic author must mean love in some supernatural sentient form in and of itself. But I suppose I was just speculating that if natural selection is a constant throughout the universe, perhaps evolution through altruism is also a universal constant anywhere life evolves to a sentient level? I mean in the same sense that two and two equals four throughout the universe, not in the sense that there is a higher authority dictating it thus, it just is.

    In practice Catholics are not as exercised by Genesis and creationism as other Christian faiths. Pope John Paul II said there should be no conflict between faith and scientific findings on evolution but that Catholics are obliged to believe souls are created by God. Mainstream Catholic schools tend to sit out the debate, teaching Genesis to seven-year-olds then forgetting about it and teaching proper evolutionary theory to fifteen year olds. That’s not really satisfactory. 

    Perhaps if altruism really is a universal evolutionary driver – or “love made us”, to put it another way – this might be a way for Catholicism to reconcile Darwinism with its own contention that Love is at the heart of the universe, that wherever life exists, species with ‘souls’ or consciousness might eventually emerge given enough time in a hospitable primordial environment. 

    Certainly it is religion which is beholden to tally its thinking with scientific findings, not the vice verse. The author says “we observe parts, though we may intuit wholes.” It’s fine to ‘intuit bigger truths’ as long as there is no conflict whatsoever with actual truth however limited that body of knowledge may so far be.

    Re your point about polytheism versus monotheism, the experience of a sublime state of love is a constant reported throughout all cultures and religions but different local interpretations of that experience gathered complexity and geographical reach gradually over generations. 

    Religious faith is a enmeshed mix of actual experience of ‘the spiritual’ ie the effect of meditation acting on the brain, and powerful persuasion by received cultural ideas. The Santa/fairy comparison is reasonable but only correlates to the latter.

  28. Hi Green Clouds, I understand where you are coming from I used to hold beliefs similar to your last paragraphs. If I were to ask you to define Love, you will probably have some trouble pinpointing the meaning exactly.  Someone may consider an act loving, while others can see it as manipulative. You may even attempt to define love by defining what it is not. There is no disputing that people and possibly many living creatures feel an  intense joy, connection, dependence, and bonding with others.  We can go to someone’s home and meet with people we enjoy interacting with and feel something more than the physical presence.

    But how do you decide/define that these feelings are Love? Because it is positive, beneficial? creates interactions that gives someone a good feeling? Enriches someone’s life. What are the parameters? Remove the label “love” and describe it. Can you see how the view of Love has many subjective interpretations.”Love” gives us feelings, but when you remove the transient feelings and expressions of love, without the emotional, chemical response, you get …..beneficial, mutual interest, positive. Perhaps we did evolve to experience these emotional responses to in turn – survive, make tasks easier with people to help out, to be reassured or safe from our fears.

    What happens now when you fall out of love? What happens when this infant grows up and dislikes they way that they were raised? What happens when your mate cheats on you and you leave fuming mad? What happens when a lioness nurses an abandoned young one of a different species – then the young one grows up and looks tastey? Where did such an impermanent and transient feeling go? What then is eternal Love?

    On a piece of paper write down what you consider to be love. Stop here and come back when you are done.

     Now cross out anything that is potentially impermanent or changing. Cross out anything that can possibly be viewed as unloving by someone else or another species. Did you come up with anything? If you did, please share.

    Love is a description that we use to name this emotional response to
    beneficial events or interactions, and processes in life. We created this word and
    lumped the emotional responses together with the physical benefits. This emotional response changes, can be effected by drugs, medications, or illnesses. Drug someone up and watch the love melt away and anger set in.

    At one point in time in my spiritual journey, I asked “What if God is not Love?” It was a really tough pill to swallow, because it I needed to acknowledge how I projected transient human views and personifications into the Universe and God. When I finally got rid of the man-in-the-sky version of God and embraced a more deistic God, I thought the personifications were gone. The fact is, they just became more subtle and difficult to detect. —– God provides. Life is abundant. I am safe in the Universe. Take away the woo and you can see what survival instinct is being met.  Instead of a Creative Universe, it becomes an expanding, changing, shifting Universe. Eventually, I came to realize I project lots of human views and personifications to natural processes. I had to acknowledge – God doesn’t exist.

    Perhaps love really does exist on some mysterious external matrix and we
    so far only recognise it in the way a newborn apparently comes to
    recognise quite quickly when it is held by someone who loves it. We just
    don’t know, there has never been anything other than extensive
    anecdotal evidence to suggest the latter.

    That is correct, there is nothing but anecdotal opinions and emotional responses to a natural world. Just when you think you have advanced beyond the traditional Judeo-Christian or Abrahamic religions, upon close examination, you realize that your views are apologetic explanations offering a different view or story to what was so obviously wrong with traditional religion.

  29.  Here is a saying that I find particularly problematic: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” 

    First of all, notice the use of the words “precisely” and “observe”. It is surely impossible to observe the universe in its entirety. We observe parts, though we may intuit wholes. 

    I stopped after this. The sentence says the universe we observe. It makes no claim to the universe we don’t observe.

    Michael

  30. “In other words, a Nietzschean would say that any theory of meaning is in the head of the person who holds it, not in the phenomena themselves.”

    Poor old Nietzsche, always gets the blame as if he stood out on a limb with a radically different view. But in fact, that ‘meaning is just in the head’ is common to all of existentialism……even the ‘absurdist’ brand that I support.

    Camus used the exact same ‘meaning is just in the head’ to propose a non-nihilist variant of existentialism….absurdism. So Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is simply wrong to assert the ‘just in the head’ automatically implies nihilism.

    But that’s the problem, I guess. Most of these Catholic theologians have ‘heard of’ Nietzsche but have likely never actually read him or any of the later philosophers. They spout forth with a very limited concept of what they are talking about. There again……..that seems to be the prime requisite for being a theologian.

  31. GreenClouds4

    Thank you for a thoughtful post.

    This suggests to me that if there is life elsewhere, natural selection and evolution is a universal law played out across the cosmos albeit in ways we can’t imagine.

    It is possible that there is life elsewhere and indeed there are discussions on this topic in the archives on this site.  Astrobiology is a complex subject but it is likely universal laws of physics would create similarities.  Unfortunately with only one Earth life-form known at present, calculating the odds of finding other life is very uncertain.

    The author of the post didn’t say that humans or
    the earth is at the heart of the universe but rather that Christians
    (indeed all major religions) believe love is at the heart of the
    universe.

    My point was that love is a property of living things, as neuro-psychologists have shown.  There is no evidence to suggest that non-living features of the universe have any love component.  I find the concept of “love” being associated with an asteroid, star or black-hole quite absurd.  All the indications are that sentient life on Earth is the only sentient life in the Solar System.

    Certainly it is religion which is beholden to tally its thinking with scientific findings, not the vice verse.

    Agreed.  Unfortunately many religious groups actively dispute this.

    In practice Catholics are not as exercised by Genesis and creationism as other Christian faiths. Pope John Paul II said there should be no conflict between faith and scientific findings on evolution but that Catholics are obliged to believe souls are created by God. Mainstream Catholic schools tend to sit out the debate, teaching Genesis to seven-year-olds then forgetting about it and teaching proper evolutionary theory to fifteen year olds. That’s not really satisfactory.

    There have been various discussions here on historic  Papal pronouncements, and on polls looking at how seriously Christians take their church’s teachings. (Young-Earth Creationists are an ignorant  noisy minority.)

    RDFRS UK/Ipsos MORI Poll #1: How religious are UK Christians? – http://richarddawkins.net/arti

    RDFRS UK/Ipsos MORI Poll #2: UK Christians oppose special influence for religion in public policy – http://richarddawkins.net/arti

    There is clearly a rift in views between the educated Christians in Europe, and the teachings of their church leaders.  Genesis and “ensoulment at conception”, are not compatible with science.

    Re your point about polytheism versus monotheism, the experience of a sublime state of love is a constant reported throughout all cultures and religions but different local interpretations of that experience gathered complexity and geographical reach gradually over generations.

    Religious faith is a enmeshed mix of actual experience of ‘the
    spiritual’ ie the effect of meditation acting on the brain,  …. … The Santa/fairy comparison is reasonable but only correlates to the latter.

    Atheism does not need to be in conflict with emotional feelings of “spirituality” which evidence identifies as arising in the brain.  They are simply not attributed to gods.  (Indeed, while believing in various supernatural effects, many very spiritual Buddhists do not believe in gods.)

    and powerful persuasion by received cultural ideas.

    While cultural ideas can be transmitted by religions, they can also be transmitted by social conventions, education, political philosophies etc. so while these merit study there are no monopolies on “meme” transmission.

    I hope you find this site interesting.  While there are many discussions on the abuses by religious or political groups, there are also pure science threads on topics such as evolution and astronomy/cosmology.

  32. I never said Einstein was an atheist, but neither do I perceive he was a deist. At least that’s not the conclusion I draw when I read his “religious” statements *over time*. True, he made analogies in the 1920s and 30s that sound a bit like deism, but by 1954, a year before his death, I think he made it quite clear what kind of belief he ended up with in life:

    ===============================
    “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.”
    ===============================

    That seems to me more like Spinoza’s pantheism, but at any rate certainly different from what I understand of deism, i.e., that there is a “deity,” a supreme “being,” a “creator” –but one who has since taken a “hands off” approach to our existence.

    I think that people all-too-often try to summarize one’s beliefs in life as a “whole,” without realizing that such views *evolve* over time. For example, if someone were to extract a statement from one of my own letters written more than 30 years ago, the conclusion would be that I was a fervent Mormon. Yet a letter from 25 years ago would classify me as no longer a Mormon, but still a Christian. 20 years ago, no longer a Christian, but still a theist. 15 years ago, a deist. 12 years ago… an atheist –where I remain today.

    Such, I believe, is the case with Einstein. People cherry pick his statements like the bible to find the ones that “suit” their views best, without ever considering them in chronological order.

    Now… if you know of a statement he made *after* the 1954 quote above, one in which he later clearly states a deist belief, please let us know. I will gladly grab my napkin to eat a plateful of crow.

  33. Alan4discussion, 
    Yes, it’s a fascinating subject.

    “My point was that love is a property of living things, as neuro-psychologists have shown.  There is no evidence to suggest that non-living features of the universe have any love component.  I find the concept of “love” being associated with an asteroid, star or black-hole quite absurd. All the indications are that sentient life on Earth is the only sentient life in the Solar System.”

    Alternative medicine practitioners believe crystals have healing powers and the belief is still prevalent in China about jade. However since the writer is Catholic and the Vatican has criticised crystal healing I assume he didn’t mean that love is an actual property of everything in the universe including non-organic matter like rocks, asteroids, stars etc. 

    Rock is held together by electromagnetic attraction of molecules. Humans are attracted to each other by the impulse to love. One evolved from the other by random chance and I can understand how difficult some people find that to accept. It is implausible. So improbable in fact it’s perfectly possible that we really are alone in the universe.

    “looking at how seriously Christians take their church’s teachings. (Young-Earth Creationists are an ignorant  noisy minority.”

    Yes, people who scoff at the idea that we evolved from monkeys are an ignorant noisy minority – nicely put – but I’m not sure even mainstream Christians fully embrace Darwinism considering how many believe morality is God-given. 

    That’s why I’m wondering whether the success of altruism might be a possible dovetail between Christian thinking and evolutionary theory. In the preface of Unweaving The Rainbow Dawkins quotes Peter Atkins “We are the children of chaos… Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction.” Atkins framed this in a pretty bleak paragraph, which I found baffling.

    “Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction” doesn’t seem to me to be at odds with an allegorical reading of Genesis and the Christian concept of free will.

    “Atheism does not need to be in conflict with emotional feelings of “spirituality” which evidence identifies as arising in the brain.”

    Agreed, but it does seem to be conspicuous by its absence from atheist discourse. It’s been a while since I read The God Delusion. I don’t remember disagreeing with a single line of it but was disappointed at what was left out because the experience of prayer is such an important persuasive factor.

    The experience of “spirituality” is worth addressing from a practical point of view because it is beneficial for mental well-being. Even for physical health the power of the placebo effect ie. ‘belief’ continues to exceed research expectations. As far as I know the ethics of medicine preclude harnessing the placebo effect, which is a pity really when it works to some extent. (I don’t mean this as an apologia for alternative medicine.)

    “… They are simply not attributed to gods.”

    We don’t know that. On a scale of one to seven of absolute theism to absolute atheism Dawkins identified himself as a six: “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” The evolution of human consciousness is also very improbable and yet here we are.

    “polls looking at how seriously Christians take their church’s teachings.”

    “While cultural ideas can be transmitted by religions, they can also be transmitted by social conventions, education, political philosophies etc. so while these merit study there are no monopolies on “meme” transmission.”

    Agreed. To be honest I’m not sure how long much of religious teaching will survive under skeptic scrutiny. Professor Dawkins told an audience in Dublin that Catholics should be honest and admit they no longer belong to the faith if they disagree with the church on key teachings. http://www.irishtimes.com/news

    While there are Catholics who accept the church’s teaching that priests are God’s representative on earth and therefore every decree is sacrosanct, many more have a direct ‘relationship with God’. When Church teaching conflicts with what they believe to be their own God-given sense of morality, it may undermine trust in church authority but doesn’t necessarily threaten belief in God. This is dubbed ‘pick and mix’ faith by conservative Catholics pundits. For example a Catholic can believe something profoundly sacred takes place at the point of transubstantiation without necessarily accepting the patent untruth that the eucharistic wafer becomes physical gore.

    But of course the bigger issue in Ireland is that Catholicism has been devastated by unfolding revelations of the cover up of child torture. We are secularising so fast we practically have the bends.

    “There is clearly a rift in views between the educated Christians in Europe, and the teachings of their church leaders.”

    Absolutely. The bible, the source material of Church teaching, is based on centuries of oral tradition translated via three dead languages. Yet it is a powerful document because so much so much seems to speak to the human condition (so does great literature of course). Earlier I compared the sensation of the experience of prayer to a baby’s awareness of the love of its parent. Perhaps Love was simply mistranslated somewhere along the line as ‘God’, a sentient authority. It does have the line “God is Love and He who lives in Love lives in God and God in Him”. Perhaps people felt the experience of ‘spirituality’ was so much like being held in love by something bigger, they assumed ‘God’ must have the other qualities of human parents; fearsome authority, judgement, guilt-inducement etc.

    And thank you, this is a spirited site and I appreciate the welcome.

  34. Panthiesm is closely associated with deism. Broadly speaking, if Einstein believed a god had some intervention in the creation of the universe one could argue he was a deist. As far as what he himself wrote, we can at most say that he did not believe in a personal, intervening god. So your believer ‘friend’ may have been on to something. Debating evolution and religion, by the way, is never a waste of time.

    I think one should also be careful when making statements like “trying to convey truth”. Not only does this sound conceited and patronising but it’s a meaningless statement that could just as easily come from the religious. It’s far more constructive to approach a theist or someone who does not believe in evolution with the mindset of trying to seek out the truth (through rational discourse) rather than dictating it.

  35. Tell you what: I’ll defer to Professor Dawkins to opine if Einstein was a deist or not, since he knows much more about his religious views than I, having covered the topic in “The God Delusion.”

    “Trying to convey truth” can sound conceited and patronising? Cheeses Crust, we wouldn’t want someone who believes the earth is flat to think that of us if we try to explain that it is, in *truth*, round.

    For the record, since you are so concerned about what comes out of my mouth, I never used that phrase with the believer, so not to worry. I did, however, use it above, with the (naïve?) assumption that other fans of Professor Dawkins would readily understand and agree that natural selection is, in *truth*, not “purely random processes.”

    Ironically, I find telling others that their choice of words in a blog post sounds “conceited and patronising” is… conceited and patronizing.

  36. I say.  Going around telling other people that they really, really MUST be more miserable is hardly a particularly ethical thing to do, is it?  Personally, I’d rather not live in a universe where purpose seeps from every star, where everything is saturated with meaning.  I don’t want to drown in meaning that’s not made by me.  I don’t want the universe to love me, as that is like being stalked by reality, harassed by the heavens.  

    These daft writers seem to think there are only two dietary choices – to eat the Body of Christ, or to starve.  I like to cook for myself.

  37. I’m not sure this article comes with a real or valid argument…  if I were grading this, at the bottom next to the great big red-inked “F” for being poorly written, I would note, “So what?  The universe doesn’t conform to your view of what’s pleasant.  Some of us grow up to accept that and get on with out lives.”

  38. Fiona Hanley - And thank you, this is a spirited site and I appreciate the welcome.

    This site debates reason and science , so it is good to have theist input from those who also support these objectives.  To often we have YEC assertions or something like the OP article.

    We have covered quite a lot of ground, so I will pick out a few issues.

    Rock is held together by electromagnetic attraction of molecules. Humans
    are attracted to each other by the impulse to love. One evolved from the other by random chance and I can understand how difficult some people find that to accept.

    Theistic references to “love” are usually ill-defined and vague.
    I think it is the basic physics which excludes the “supernatural” from brain activity, although neurology offers more detailed explanations of the biological effects.  Random chance is often mentioned in the context of evolution, but the non-random “natural selection” is the guiding force. Richard explains how altruism can evolve within populations, by reciprocal altruism and mutual support from kin-selection.

    but I’m not sure even mainstream Christians fully embrace Darwinism considering how many believe morality is God-given.

    Many don’t!  They now have  unscientific fudged versions called Theistic evolutionhttp://rationalwiki.org/wiki/T

    Earlier the RCC historical position re science was ludicrous -  as I commented on this earlier discussion:- http://richarddawkins.net/comm

    Darwin’s theory, does not include Abiogenesis – http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/A

    For your information:- The work on abiogenesis has been CONFIRMED in Dr. Jack Szostak’s LAB. 2009 Nobel Laurette in medicine for his work on telomerase. there is a short video on this link, which explains it. – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v

    “Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction” doesn’t seem to me to
    be at odds with an allegorical reading of Genesis and the Christian concept of free will.

    Atheists work out their own purposes in life.  My experience has been that Christians also do so, but read whatever they like into “allegorical interpretations”.

    but was disappointed at what was left out because the experience of prayer is such an important persuasive factor.

    I see this as a key difference.  I recognise the usefulness and psychological benefits of reflection, contemplation, and spiritual feelings, but unlike Xtians I do not externalise these as addressing an abstracted  father figure.  Atheists simply do not attribute these to gods.  It is more of an internal conversation between different parts of the brain as part of digesting ideas and input..

    There is of course no “Tragedy in New Atheism”. There are many happy well balanced people, who in modern civilised countries no longer have to fear being attacked (or killed) as heretics by fanatical fundamentalists! (Apart from in the media, the internet and in some churches!) The bus ads suggest they come out and be counted.

  39. Actually, I just don’t believe the Christian fairy tale.  Please consider that at least some of the consequences of my disbelief are entirely the result of your overactive imagination.  I would put your belief that my lack of belief makes my universe tragic in that camp. It is something that only makes sense to you.

  40. Second sentence to boot.

    Not that this is the first time such people have committed contextomy. The “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” line is from River out of Eden and was specifically a counter to a religionist’s attempt to anthropomorphize the universe via theodicy (theo-idiocy). The sentence was to point out that the universe wasn’t made for our benefit (a la the Just World Fallacy). It was not a declaration that such things as purpose, evil, or good don’t exist. Pointing out that there is no “humanness” in atoms does not suddenly mean humans vanish in a puff of logic.

  41. By studying radiation from even the most distant parts of the galaxy, we discovered physics and chemistry work just the same everywhere.  This means we can safely extrapolate a lot of what we observe here to the rest of the universe. 

    Pitiless unfortunately implies cold and cruel, but all Dawkins really means is the universe as a whole (or god subset) exhibits no pity just as a rock exhibits no pity, not because rocks are hateful.

    If you want the universe to have a meaning, construct your own. You have the joyous freedom to select one you like. If you want it to have pity, express pity.  Kindness has the etymology “kin”.  Look for it from your closest relatives, not from bleak lunar landscapes.

  42. the real problem with this mindset is not that atheism destroys any “purpose” to the universe. i suggest quite the opposite

    this sense of purpose believers all cling to is actually a sense of someone elses purpose, who they’re far too modest and pious to claim to understand.

    so if new improved atheism has such a tragedy it’s just that i have to decide myself if i want purpose, then if the answer is “yes” decide myself what that purpose is. and if i get fed up, change my mind, who cares? i call that freewill, catholics would understandibly call that a tragedy

  43. Yes, the tragedy is people simply can not accept the reality. The attack from the believers will continue. Each generation of rational thinkers will have to fight it out with the swarming locust of believers.  

  44. Hi Kat. 

    I’m working on it. In the meantime, since today is a big day for science,I thought you might like this. http://partialshade.net/2012/0

    Voyager

    I am currently 13 hrs 37 mins 03 secs of light-travel time from Earth
    – Tweet from Voyager 2, 1 April 2012

    May all be well.
    This is a small heart
    I have carried in the dark.

    Hello to everyone.
    I am the beautiful
    things we have tried to do.
    It is difficult to explain.

    We greet you, O great ones.
    This is a human male
    and this a female.
    This is a prelude,
    followed by a fugue.

    Hello. How are you?
    We made this
    with our bodies.
    It is possible that our bodies
    are made of love, or darkness
    or nothing.
    It is possible.

    We are happy here.
    This is made of gold.
    This is what whales sound like.
    This is a beating heart.
    I am a long way from home.

    Dear friends, we wish you the best.
    Do you know about gravity?
    Everything is falling,
    but everything is continuing.

    Hello from the children of the planet Earth.
    This is a small heart
    I have carried in the dark.

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