The Atheist Seal of Approval

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Many religious believers are intent on getting atheists’ approval for their beliefs. If you’re hoping for that — don’t hold your breath.

“But surely you don’t mean my religion!”

If you hang around the online atheist world long enough, you’ll notice an interesting pattern. Many religious and spiritual believers who engage with atheists seem very intent on getting atheists’ approval for their beliefs.

Typically, these believers acknowledge that many religions are profoundly troubling. They share atheists’ revulsion against religious hatreds and sectarian wars. They share our repugnance with religious fraud, the charlatans who abuse people’s trust to swindle them out of money and sex and more. They share our disgust with willful religious ignorance, the flat denials of overwhelming scientific evidence that contradicts people’s beliefs. They can totally see why many atheists are so incredulous, even outraged, about the world of religion.

But they think their religion is an exception. They think their religion is harmless, a kinder, gentler faith. They think their religion is philosophically consistent, supported by reason and evidence — or at least, not flatly contradicted by it.

And they want atheists to agree.

They really, really want atheists to agree. They want atheists to say, “No, of course, your beliefs aren’t like all those others — those other beliefs are crazy, but yours make sense.” Or they want atheists to say, “Wow, I hadn’t heard that one before — how fascinating and well thought-out!” Of course they understand why atheists object to all those other bad religions. They just don’t understand why we object to theirs. They get very hurt when we object to theirs. And they will spend a significant amount of time and energy trying to persuade us to stop objecting.


Why do they care what atheists think?

I’ve been getting into these debates with religious believers for many years now. I’ve seen how they start out, and where they end up. I’ve seen many, many theists desperately try to get the Atheist Seal of Approval for their religion. And I’ve reach two conclusions about why they’re doing it. They think atheists have higher standards than most believers… so our approval will mean more. And they don’t want to think their religion has anything in common with those other sucky religions… and getting atheists’ approval would let them keep on thinking that.

The Gold Standard

Believers seeking the Atheist Seal of Approval for their beliefs seem to see atheists as the gold standard. They know that most atheists have rejected religion for a reason: they know that we take religion seriously, and that we’ve examined it carefully and thoughtfully before rejecting it. They know that we’re more familiar with the tenets and traditions of religion than most believers: that we not only know more about religion in general than most believers do, but that we know more about specific religious beliefs than the people who actually adhere to those beliefs. They see that, as Julia Sweeney so eloquently put it, we take religion too seriously to believe in it. They see how passionately we value the truth — and they respect that.

So if they can get us to give their religion a thumbs-up… that would really mean something. They understand that religious believers — other believers, that is, not themselves of course — often don’t have very good reasons for their beliefs. They sincerely care about the truth, I think (this is definitely not the case for all believers, but it is for these folks), and they want to test their faith against the harshest critics they can think of. They want their cognitive dissonance resolved — the tension between the religious faith they hold to be true, and the evidence and arguments showing that the case for their faith is crap — and they understand enough about the communal reinforcement and other cognitive errors to know that Other People Who Already Agree With Them isn’t the most rigorous way to resolve that dissonance. If they could get some atheists to tell them their belief is okay, that would resolve that annoying dissonance in a heartbeat.

And they seem genuinely surprised when this approval isn’t forthcoming. It seems to have genuinely never occurred to them that, since atheists have carefully and thoughtfully examined religion before rejecting it, this examination probably includes their religion as well.

The Not-So-Special Snowflake

Special snowflake
Which brings me to my second point:

Many believers don’t want to acknowledge how ordinary their religion is.

They don’t want to acknowledge everything that their religion has in common with every other religion. They feel the same revulsion and bafflement that atheists do at religious hatred and fraud and willful ignorance… and they don’t want to be identified with it. They think their religion is a special snowflake — and they really, really want atheists to recognize its beautiful and unique crystalline structure.

So when atheists say, “Nope, sorry, your snowflake looks like all the other snowflakes”… these believers get very upset. They get very upset when we point out the striking similarities between their religion and the hateful, fraudulent, willfully ignorant religions they so rightly reject. They get very upset when we point out that their beliefs are just as inconsistent with evidence, their arguments just as weak, their goalposts just as slippery, their assumptions just as unfalsifiable. They get very upset when we point out that we have, in fact, heard of their version of religion before, or at least ones very much like it. They get very upset when we say, “Yes, I’ve heard that argument before, about a hundred times, I could refute it in my sleep, here’s exactly why it doesn’t hold up, in fact here are links to a dozen other atheist writers who have also pointed out exactly why it doesn’t hold up.”

And they get very upset indeed when we point out that their version of religion is far from harmless. They get very upset when we point out that their version of religion, just like every religion, encourages people to believe things for which there is no good evidence, ideas that by their very nature can have no reality check… and that this, by itself, does harm. They get very upset when we point out that disabling reality checks leaves people vulnerable to oppression, fraud, and abuse: that it armors beliefs against criticism, questioning, and self- correction, and thus armors them against anything that might stop them from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality… and extreme, grotesque immorality. And they get very upset when we argue that their kinder, gentler form of religion gives credibility to the harsher, uglier forms… by giving credibility to the idea that disabling our reality checks is not only acceptable, but a positive virtue, and that it’s perfectly reasonable to believe things for no good reason, just because we want to.

They don’t just get upset. They get hurt… and they blame atheists for their hurt feelings. They often get hostile… and lash out at atheists for the appalling intolerance of arguing that they’re wrong. (In an argument that they sought out. I know. It doesn’t make sense to me, either.) And they get intensely surprised. They come seeking approval for their religion from the very people who, by definition, are the least likely to give it… and they get genuinely surprised when that approval isn’t forthcoming.

The Bad News

Bad news
So if you’re hoping for the Atheist Seal of Approval for your religious beliefs, I’ve got some bad news:

It isn’t going to happen.

We think your religion is philosophically inconsistent. We think your religion is completely unsupported by either evidence or reason. And many of us — probably most of us — think your religion fucks people up.

I’ll stop here for a Fairness Moment. Yes, most atheists understand that different religions are, you know, different. And I’m one of them. We get that some religions do more harm than others; that some religions are more out of touch with reality than others; that some religions are more grossly contradicted by hard evidence than others. (We understand, for instance, that theistic evolution, while having no good reason whatsoever to believe it and in fact being flatly contradicted by a mountain of evidence, isn’t quite as outlandishly bonkers as young-earth creationism.) Some of us — and again, I’m among them — will even say that, if the only religions in the world were the tolerant, ecumenical, moderate and progressive forms of religion, we wouldn’t care all that much about it. We’d see it about the way we see urban legends about alligators in the sewers and whatnot: just another silly mistaken idea that some people are mysteriously attached to. We’d still disagree with it, we’d still argue against it if you asked our opinion… but we wouldn’t be devoting time and energy to building a community of people who don’t believe it, or to persuading people who do believe it out of their beliefs.

And, of course, we think you have the right to your beliefs. Absolutely, passionately, without question. We think your beliefs are full of beans… and if anyone tries to use force or violence or law to stop you from believing it, we’ll sock them right in the jaw. Or at least vote to get them out of office.

But for majority of atheists, that’s the most you’re going to get out of us.

No religion
We don’t believe in God. Any god. Not Pat Robertson’s, not Osama Bin Laden’s — and not yours. That’s what it means to be an atheist. If we were impressed by your religion and thought it had real merit, we wouldn’t be atheists anymore. Asking us which religion is the least harmful or the least out of touch with reality or the least contradicted by reason and evidence… it’s like asking which of the Bee Gees is the least annoying. They’re all annoying. And all religions are harmful, out of touch with reality, and contradicted by reason and evidence.

And… okay, this next bit is going to sound a bit harsh. But frankly, we don’t think your religion is even all that interesting. We’ve seen it before. You may have an odd little twist on it that we’re not familiar with, and we might be somewhat curious about it. But the apologetics and theodicies and defenses are all depressingly familiar. I’ve been blogging about atheism for many years now, and it’s been a very long time indeed since I’ve seen a defense of religion that I’ve never seen before. (The Argument From Tigers was the last one. And it didn’t exactly provoke serious searching of my non-existent soul. Mostly it provoked months of gut-blasting hilarity.)

In fact, in the years that I’ve been writing about atheism and debating with religious believers, I’ve actually become more confident in my atheism. I’ve become more confident because I see the same bad arguments for religion over and over and over again. And over. And over. And over yet again. Sometimes I think that if I see the argument from design one more time, or the God of the gaps, or “different ways of knowing,” or “you can’t disprove it with 100% certainty, therefore it’s reasonable to believe it,” or Pascal’s freaking wager, I’m going to have an aneurism. Whenever I see someone make an argument for religion, I still have moments of wondering, “Is this going to be the argument that convinces me?”… but those moments are becoming shorter and shorter every day, to the point where I’m measuring them in nanoseconds, and every day my hope that I’ll see something surprising dwindles just a little bit more.

The Good News

Good news Futurama
Don’t get me wrong. We can work with you as allies. We don’t have to agree about everything to work together on issues we do agree on. We can work together on separation of church and state, stopping religiously- inspired oppression and violence, etc. Many of us — heck, probably most of us — are even willing to temporarily set aside our differences while we work together on the stuff we have in common.

But if you ask us what we think of your religion… we’re going to tell you. If you visit our blogs to see what we think of your religion… you’re going to find out.

We think you’re mistaken. And if you’re honest, you need to acknowledge that you think we’re mistaken. Yes, it’s true, every time an atheist says, “I don’t believe in God,” we’re implying that people who do believe in God are wrong. But every time you say that you do believe in God, you’re implying that people who don’t are wrong.

That’s fine. You can think we’re wrong, and we can think you’re wrong. We can have that conversation, or we can put it on the back burner and talk about something else. We can be allies, friends, families, with people we disagree with.

But that’s not going to work if that alliance or friendship depends on us giving you our seal of approval for beliefs we think are flatly mistaken.

After all — you’re not giving us yours.

UPDATE: A Facebook comment from David Byars has made me realize that there’s a likely third reason that some believers seek the atheist seal of approval for their beliefs. And that’s that they’re in process of questioning their beliefs… but are afraid of doing so. Their religion tells them not to question, but to have faith — or else they’re just frightened of letting go of their faith, for fear of permanent death and other scary implications of atheism. But they do, in fact, care about whether the things they believe are true. So they seek out atheists’ approval for their beliefs: partly for reassurance… but partly as a baby step into more serious questioning. The “My religion is okay, isn’t it?” attempts at cognitive dissonance resolution probably are probably, at least sometimes, part of the process of questioning and relinquishing faith. I think there’s a lot of truth to this… and I also think it’s a more generous assessment than my original ones. I guess I haven’t been in a very generous mood lately. Thanks for the reality check, David — and for the reminder about patience.

The Atheist Seal of Approval
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46 thoughts on “The Atheist Seal of Approval

  1. 3

    The Facebook poster makes a good point. Believers who wrestle with atheists are sometimes wrestling with themselves.
    I’m in a continuing argument of this type with a believer myself, and I’m careful in pointing out different ways of thinking about his beliefs as a way of planting seeds that will, ideally, germinate over time.

  2. 4

    Just what is the “Argument from Tigers”, anyway? I could use some gut-busting hilarity.

    So glad you asked, Nentuaby. I love it when people take the bait! The Argument from Tigers went roughly like this:
    “Atheists think nothing is more powerful than human beings.” (No, we don’t — but whatever.)
    “But there are things more powerful than human beings. Tigers, for instance, can eat human beings.
    “Therefore, it makes sense to think that there is an even greater power, more powerful than both humans and tigers.
    “Therefore, God.”
    (And its corollary: “Therefore, the particular god I believe in is real.”)
    I know. It doesn’t make sense to me, either. It is pretty funny, though. And you have to give it points for originality.

  3. 7

    Excellent post, as always.
    There are theists who take a fairly intellectual approach to their beliefs. They ask tough questions and explore tough options that force them to bend their thinking – up to a point. But, they often have a hard time going beyond a point that takes them outside of their theist box and allows them to completely abandon their usual way of thinking. Believe me, it’s a terrifying place to be, intellectually. I’m not saying this disparagingly. I’m saying it because it describes the way I was for years, and the way many of my friends still are.
    I think what such theists are really seeking is a Rationalist Seal of Approval, rather than an Atheist Seal of Approval. It just so happens that many rationalists are also atheists (for good, rational reasons, I think). Thoughtful theists like these may accept atheism as a rational position, but they balk at the notion that it may be a more rational position than theirs, or, even more humbling the them, the most rational position. They want (at the least) equal rational standing with atheism (or agnosticism, which they often view as less threatening than atheism). As you noted in your post, they’re not going to get it.

  4. 10

    I’d actually like to throw in another suggestion, if I may.
    One thing I personally have noted in discussions with theists is that there’s a lack of common ground between a certain type of believer and many atheists or skeptics, and that is that the former often values peace and harmony and getting along, while the latter are often more concerned with getting at the truth. (Greta, I think you’ve commented on this philosophical difference in the past.)
    The result is that, being people who value happy fuzzy feelings of unity and so on, they’re on some level bothered by the fact that so many atheists want to pick a fight. I think it especially bothers a subset who view atheists as natural allies politically and in banding together against radical/reactionary believers. So in some way they have to deal with this stumbling block, which is “I like you and I wish we could get along, but you don’t want to move past this one thing that I consider very important.” So they try to do what they consider most natural: compromise. “Yes, young earth creationism is absurd. I will cede you that; now will you let me keep my beliefs, so we can move on together?” And then of course are astonished when the atheists say, “Nope. Truth isn’t a matter of give and take. Sorry, but your beliefs are silly too.” After all, from their perspective, they are being totally reasonable – they ceded ground on one side, now it’s our turn to do it on the other. We’re the ones being big meanie pants by refusing to hold up our end of the deal. And this, of course, conflicts with their desire to make everything happy and calm and not full of nasty fighting. Hence all the upset.

  5. 11

    That was a very insightful comment.
    I am simply not convinced that there is much to the idea that theists seek the approval of atheists for their beliefs, at least not in general. It seems to me much more likely that they are motivated by the belief that they are right and that others should understand and acknowledge this.
    Your hypothesis also accounts for a lot of the reactions to atheists I have seen from believers, particularly the dolts who like to comment on Greta’s essays on Alternet. They are shocked, – SHOCKED! – that Greta will not meet them half way. Hence all that garbage about atheists being “just like” the fundamentalists they oppose, even thought only one of those two groups of people works tirelessly to curtail the human rights of millions of people.

  6. 12

    Indigo, you have a good point. I agree this is surely one more reason they do this. It becomes especially clear when they come, for example to this blog, to discuss.
    In real life I can see that there can be reasons to agree to disagree in the “spirit” of keeping the peace with believing friends and relatives (which doesn’t mean I won’t say what I think about things if asked). But on a blog such as this I see no reason AT ALL to do anything like that. I don’t know these people, and I have no reason to meet them half way in these things – especially when they seek us out.
    It’s happened many times when subjects such as these have been discussed that the theist starts to (out of the blue sometimes, as it seems to me anyway) describe what kind of person they are, that they do good and are nice, and so on. Most of the times I’ve never doubted they are decent people – now, what does that have to do with what we are discussing? Usually nothing.
    Another thing in this vein that they are often saying is “I didn’t come here to convince anyone.” Which often seems to mean “Stop trying to convince me!” They think that since we have stated our opinion already, it’s now their turn to state theirs, and the polite thing for us to do is then to let it end there, and not question them further. They often also say “I just wanted to share,” and similar things.
    So, yes, I agree, in many ways they seem to think that we are breaking some sort of set of social rules when dicussing these things with them.

  7. 13

    I am confused by the apparent insistence of Atheists that the concept of god and the concept of a religion are the same thing. It is one thing to not believe in god and be atheistic rather than theistic. However, I don’t understand how it is possible to not believe in religion. While I can’t prove that god exists I think I can prove that religion exists.
    A person who does not believe in god is atheistic, so a person who doesn’t believe in religion would be areligious. I think that opens the door for a person who is atheistic to be religious.
    For instance, if a religion was only based on a simple moral and ethical belief such as the “Golden Rule” could an atheist believe in that religious belief? Of course, a person who was areligious could not believe in such things as the Golden Rule unless it was scientifically proven to be true. So far, there has been very little research into the truth of moral and ethical principles, so an areligious person does not have too many moral or ethical rules to follow.
    On the other hand, what moral and ethical beliefs can an atheist have? I suspect that if the only requirement is to not believe in god, then a reasonable set of moral and ethical beliefs could be acceptable. If there was a religion of just those moral and ethical beliefs, then couldn’t an athiest believe in that religion?

  8. 14

    Michael: It’s called humanism. It’s not a religion though, just a school of ethical thought.
    Religion without supernatural elements is like a pizza without bread, sauce, or cheese. It’s not a pizza.

  9. 15

    Does religion require supernatural elements? Who determines such rules?
    It seems that some atheists need to create a “strawman” definition of religion that requires all religion to have irrational beliefs in the supernatural. That makes debating the pros and cons of religion very easy because you simply attack the extremely irrational aspects of some religious belief systems.
    However, if you consider that having shared moral, ethical, and spiritual beliefs are more common components of religion, then arguing against all religion is more difficult since all religions do not have to believe in irrational supernatural beings.
    Of course, such a view would make a humanist uncomfortable since humanism is certainly a set of moral, ethical, and spiritual beliefs. As such, I don’t see a difficulty in attending a humanist church although I might call it something other than a church since the term is clearly associated with christianity. Would you go to a Humanist Belief Center every Sunday for discussion, enlightenment, and community building?
    Humanism is not the only school of thought which could be studied by an academic theologist as a religion even though there is no god or “theo” in the “religion”. Many Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, do not have a god as such.
    Of course, there is a fine line between a religion and a philosophy, and it is not clear where that line is located. Is a belief in Yoga a religion or a philosophy? Is the belief in astrology a religion or a philosophy? Is a belief in the Universal Life church a religion or a philosophy? Is a belief in the interconnected web of life a religion or a philosophy. Is meditation a religion or a philosophy?
    A simple answer is to say that anything that has an irrational belief in the supernatural is religion and everything else isn’t. That is an oversimplification which merely diminishes the depth of discussion about what benefits might exist from a collective set of non-scientific moral and ethical beliefs.
    My religion does not require beliefs in supernatural elements and is a very legitimate and international church organization. To use your phrase, it is a real “pizza”, but it just doesn’t have the god.

  10. 16

    Michael: How, exactly, are you defining “religion”?
    Yes, I am defining “religion” as “belief in God or other non-physical entities or forces with an effect on the physical world.” That is how the overwhelming majority of people use the word. If you don’t believe in anything like that, but have some sort of cultural or community affiliation with a religious tradition (such as secular Judaism), I don’t have a problem with that… but that’s not what I mean when I talk about religion, and it’s not what most other people mean, either. I suggest you come up with a different word for “a community with a shared sense of moral and ethical beliefs.”
    (And I suggest you keep the word “spiritual” out of your definition, since it’s far too confusing: again, it’s commonly used to mean “supernatural,” and if that’s not what you intend to say or imply, you’re going to confuse the issue.)

  11. 17

    Indigo: I think you have a really good point. I agree: a lot of what’s going on here is the fallacy of the golden mean: the assumption that, when people disagree, the truth must lie somewhere in the middle. And it’s coupled with a failure to distinguish between subjective questions of personal taste or ideology (where compromise is often a reasonable approach) and objective questions of truth and reality (where compromise is totally missing the point). I think you’re right: they see themselves as compromising or providing a reasonable middle ground, and we stick to our guns, they think we’re being unreasonable, dogmatic, and mean.
    Hm. Topic for another post, perhaps?

  12. 18

    I also think you made a good point. Greta Christina beat me to the punch in naming the fallacy involved in such thinking.
    Greta Christina:
    I think it could be an interesting topic for a post. Go for it.

  13. 19

    Unitarian Universalism, as it is practiced by many congregations In North America, comes quite close to what you are describing. There are no doctrinal belief requirements, no dogma you must believe to be a member. It has many of the ritual trappings of religion, but there is no requirement to believe in any god or supernatural force. It is a community of individuals with common values who come together to support each other in their own individual life journeys (some would say their own spiritual journeys).
    There are individuals in the congregation I belong to who call themselves Christians, others who call themselves Buddhists, some pagans and there are also many who are atheists and some who consider themselves to be Humanists. So it is not a completely supernatural-free place if you look at all of the individuals, but the organization itself does not propagate the supernatural while keeping many of the aspects of religion (rituals and meditations, support for shared values and ethics, reminders to treat others well) that people value. Certainly interesting to be in a church where God is a controversial word. It is not exactly what you were referring to, but it seems like it might be somewhere on the road to it.

  14. 20

    A couple of comments for Michael, above.
    1) Atheists DO believe religion exists. Thus your assertion to the contrary is wrong.
    2) You keep saying “the irrational belief in the supernatural” as if there could be a rational belief in the supernatural. Fuzzy thinking.
    3) As with most theists (I know, YOUR snowflake is different), you want to tell atheists what we believe and why we are wrong. Instead, why don’t you tell us what YOU believe, in detail, and WHY you believe what you do?

  15. 21

    I am a Unitarian Universalist. Most of my beliefs are based that religion and can be found on the internet, so I won’t repeat them here.
    I have my own conception of god, as every Unitarian Universalist is encouraged to do. In my case, I have a belief or theory that god is the collective life on the planet Earth. As an analogy, the men and women and other organisms on the planet are like the bees in a hive. The hive has the capacity to take action. It is the god. It is also, “all-knowing” since god (my god) will know what we know, no more and no less. Our brains are the brain of god just as the trees are the lungs of my god. Although it is not as theoretically powerful as the christian god, it can be proven to exist through objective data. My god is an extreme form of “think globally and act locally”. God is the global; we are the local.
    Now, I don’t want to get into a fight with atheists, but my conception of god creates an interesting problem for a person who claims to be an atheist. In my religious views, an atheist would be a person who does not believe in the existence of the planet Earth or the life on it. I have pretty good evidence that my “theos” exists. In fact, god is reading this blog right now. Of course, I realize that atheists are really opposed to the christian god. Fortunately, since I don’t believe in the existence of the christian god either, I can’t say that atheists are wrong if they are just talking about that god. I only disagree with atheists if they are talking about my god.
    As a result of these beliefs, I think I have a religion that is based in religious thought and based in scientific thought. It is not based on supernatural beliefs. I don’t believe that religion and science need to be in opposition. In fact, both disciplines are enhanced by the other. My church and the religion associated with it have many atheists and scientists who attend. It is also fairly old, and several US Presidents have been Unitarians.
    I came to by beliefs because my mother was a Unitarian. I came to my beliefs about god in a workshop held at my church called “Build Your Own Religion.”
    I think that answers the questions of Locutus7.

  16. 22

    Posted by: Michael | December 11, 2010 at 08:34 PM
    Why should we assume all life to be interconnected as a form of hive under one consciousness?
    Surely what we know is more consistent with species being, well, seperate species, each running on its own perogative?
    As one species goes extinct another may move in to replace the old species’ niche, but there is no conscious decision by some “mother nature” figure to make this happen, it is simply that there is opportunity.
    Nature is simply not that efficient. You see this in that we are part of it, and yet often act in a manner which is detrimental to our own species as well as others, extinguishing resources.
    Just look at when fisheries collapse, or the burning of the rain forests for farm land, which doesn’t work out that well because the soil isn’t that good.
    We are not unique in this. Goats will overgraze land until only a few can survive, and elephants are notorious habitat destroyers.
    To my mind while new species may arise to take advantage of this, this isn’t a system we would ascribe to being a single organism, but rather the sort of thing we would expect from a multitude of organisms competing for resources.

  17. 23

    “…my conception of god creates an interesting problem for a person who claims to be an atheist. In my religious views, an atheist would be a person who does not believe in the existence of the planet Earth or the life on it.”
    Your conception of god does not create a problem for atheists, it creates one for you. The fact that your conception of god leads to such a ridiculous conclusion indicates that at least one of your premises is flawed. The problem is yours, not ours.

  18. 24

    Michael wrote:
    I have my own conception of god, as every Unitarian Universalist is encouraged to do.
    Thank you for taking the time to share your ideas with us.
    I am also a Unitarian Universalist but I will look at the subjects you’ve raised from a different point of view because I’m an atheist and humanist Unitarian Univeraslist who values human community and the comfort of singing and sharing in groups more than I do concepts like “god,” “divine,” etc.
    There are some problems if one decides to re-frame a word so that its definition is unique to just one person.
    Communication isn’t a solitary pastime — it is a social activity and it requires participation with others.
    In order for communication to happen, we need to ensure that we hold that some words we use hold a shared meaning with the group that is communicating.
    Finally, if you get to individually re-define what the word “god” means to you, isn’t that freedom to re-define it available to the rest of us. In other words, there is no mandatory requirement that anyone else has to accept your definition of “god.”
    Then Michael wrote:
    In my case, I have a belief or theory that god is the collective life on the planet Earth. As an analogy, the men and women and other organisms on the planet are like the bees in a hive. The hive has the capacity to take action. It is the god. It is also, “all-knowing” since god (my god) will know what we know, no more and no less. Our brains are the brain of god just as the trees are the lungs of my god. Although it is not as theoretically powerful as the christian god, it can be proven to exist through objective data. My god is an extreme form of “think globally and act locally”. God is the global; we are the local.
    Now that’s an interesting way to view god and it’s been around for a while.
    What you’re proposing is a very detailed description of pantheism [“the view that the Universe (Nature) and God are identical”]
    Most pantheistic religious views are “unfalsifiable” and that makes them useless from the standpoint of those who use philosophical and/or methodological naturalism to explore the world.
    However, your pantheistic hypothesis differs from the vague versions of pantheism by saying some very concrete things about the world we live in that are testable.
    If we lived in a world that had a pantheistic hive mind that you’ve suggested, how would that world look?
    Would it look like the fictional cinematic world of Pandora in the movie “Avatar”?
    So far, the most that the sciences and other naturalistic methods can say here is the evidence for some sort of pantheistic hive mind is lacking. We have no evidence that Eywa exists beyond a fictional concept in James Cameron’s movie. Remember that Pandora was a counter-factual world where they had concrete empirical evidence of some sort of global intelligence existing (the scientists were able to measure data transmission in the biological network of plants and animals in the movie).
    In fact, the evidence we do have is consistent with a world of individuals and populations competing with each other for finite resources. In some cases, competition has produced viciousness. In other cases (especially with social animals like canines and primates), competition has produced compassion, cooperation, and altruism.
    Then Michael wrote:
    Now, I don’t want to get into a fight with atheists, but my conception of god creates an interesting problem for a person who claims to be an atheist. In my religious views, an atheist would be a person who does not believe in the existence of the planet Earth or the life on it.
    This is only a problem if we all accept your personal definition of “god.”
    The so-called logical paradox that you’re describing isn’t a universal paradox but rather one of your own making by proposing a pantheistic definition of god.
    It would be inconsistent for you to say we’re all free to discover our own version of god but folks who are atheists are required to accept your version of god.
    Then Michael wrote:
    As a result of these beliefs, I think I have a religion that is based in religious thought and based in scientific thought. It is not based on supernatural beliefs.
    I don’t want to be rude here but this question needs to be asked. How would you distinguish your pantheistic hive-mind hypothesis from the non-pantheistic naturalistic view that the world we live in with both competition and cooperation comes from a mindless Darwinian process?
    Then Michael wrote:
    I don’t believe that religion and science need to be in opposition. In fact, both disciplines are enhanced by the other. My church and the religion associated with it have many atheists and scientists who attend. It is also fairly old, and several US Presidents have been Unitarians.
    Unitarian Universalism does have historic roots in the Protestant Reformation but it’s changed theologically over the years. Originally, it was much more “Christian.”
    In the 20th Century, Unitarian Universalism became more humanist — all three Humanist Manifestos were endorsed by Unitarian Universalist ministers. All three manifestos promote a naturalistic worldview (“Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis” is the quote from the third manifesto).
    And today Unitarian Universalism is moving towards a more “spiritual” and away from humanist empiricism.
    This recent trend and what it means for the future survival and vitality of Unitarian Universalism is hotly contested topic within Unitarian Universalism.

  19. 25

    I suspect that in some cases it may be a bit like white people asking black people to confirm they’re not racist. They know they’re part of a hegemon, they don’t feel comfortable in the role of oppressor, but they haven’t worked out that it’s disrespectful and objectifying to demand that a member of a minority absolve you in the name of that minority of any guilt you might feel over the bad deeds of your group.

  20. 26

    Michael: If I re-define “God” as “the tree in front of my apartment building,” would that present a problem for atheists?
    No. It wouldn’t. That is not what the word “God” means to the overwhelming majority of people who use the word. And the same is true if you re-define “God” as “the collective life on the planet Earth,” or “the universe,” or some other entirely natural entity. As Richard Dawkins said to Karen Armstrong about her extremely vague, abstract notion of God for whom the concept of “existence” is not even central: “Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They’ll be right.” If you tell the congregation of a church or mosque that God is the collective life on the planet Earth, they will brand you an atheist. They’ll be right.
    I understand the feeling that life on Earth is special. I share it. But why do you want to call that “god”? What do you get out of it? It seems that you want it both ways: you want your “religion” to not have any of the problems that stem from supernaturalism, but you still want it to be special, distinct from ordinary philosophies or communities or approaches to life.
    Unless, of course, your belief is a supernatural one, along the lines of a “world-soul” that all life shares and participates in. In which case, that is a religion in the classic sense… and it’s totally fair game for atheists.

  21. 27

    Boy, I have certainly stirred up a lot of comments. As a result, it is hard to respond to them all. Regretfully, I will pick and chose only a couple to at least keep the discussion going.
    I am glad to see that there is a Unitarian Universalist who is an atheist in the discussion. That reflects back to the original discussion point of this blog about the atheists seal of approval. If there is a seal of approval to be had, I wonder who is giving it to whom, atheists to unitarians universalists or vice versa?
    I must admit that I did enjoy the movie Avatar; however, it was not in keeping with my conception of god. For one, there seemed to be some supernatural powers at play, and the whole “single hive-mind” was a little extreme for what I see as reality on this planet. There is no evidence that the life forms of earth share a common mind. So, if you do not believe in the god of Avatar, that’s fine, I don’t either, but it is not quite correct to describe my theory of god as being the same as that movie.
    My theory is more related to a definition of what makes a living organism. Admittedly, I am pushing the envelope of how we define a life if we view the planet earth as a life form. Just as we are a combination of many tiny cellular organisms, couldn’t the planet also be viewed in a similar way? The microbes that live in my stomach probably feel very independent, as microbes, but they are a part of my body and would be considered as a part of “me”. Individually, the cells in my body are each unique. Collectively, they create a greater life form.
    As I assume most of you know, there are many definitions of god. It is a fundamental weakness with the concept of god. However, it is a concept we all are attempting to discuss. So, from the point of view of a christian and their conception of god, I would certainly be an atheist since I don’t believe in their god. (That would make me a christian-atheist, I guess.) However, can I believe in an individual type of a god that has religious value to me as an explanation for some of my moral and ethical principles? So, if we are individual parts of a greater life form (or god?) does it seem reasonable to develop a set of moral and ethical principles that respects both each individual and the greater collective? I don’t claim that it has to work for everyone, but it works for me.
    Greta asked me why I want to call life on earth god. She felt that I was trying to have something both ways. Was I trying to have religion and not have the problems of supernaturalism? The short answer is yes, because that is a big part of what Unitarian Universalism is about. However, over and above the liberal beliefs of the unitarian church, I am trying to blend my religious beliefs and my scientific beliefs into a theory that makes sense to me and seems to reconcile some of the conflicting data I have gathered over my life. I do that because I am more of a scientist than a religious adherent.
    At the moment, my ideas are certainly not common. Admittedly, most people have different ideas about what is god and religion and how those concepts are related to science and the scientific method. Nonetheless, I thought I would take the time to express them to group of people who have some very strong ideas on all those topics.
    In closing, I want to say, thanks for the feedback. It is helping me to tighten up my theory about god. I will try to clearly steer away from certain science fiction types of concepts such as the planet Pandora or the Borg Collective. I want to keep my ideas rooted a bit more in biological definitions of what constitutes a living organism.

  22. 28

    Michael, what you have there is not a theory. You have a warm & fuzzy fantasy (just like a religion, really) and you seem to be here to seek some kind of atheist seal of approval. All those other religions are crap but yours is ‘special’.
    Okay, I know that was hard but I calls ’em as I sees ’em. Sorry.
    Science is all about pursuit of truth. Your religion/fantasy seems to be all about trying to invent a deity that doesn’t conflict with reality. Why? What observed phenomenon is your hive-mind hypothesis supposed to explain? Why do you feel the need to blend your religious beliefs and scientific beliefs?

  23. 29

    I want to keep my ideas rooted a bit more in biological definitions of what constitutes a living organism.

    Michael: If you want to do that, I suggest you steer entirely clear of this notion of “the collective life on the planet Earth” being a unified life form with a unified consciousness. There is not one scrap of good evidence to support that hypothesis, and a whole lot of evidence that contradicts it.

  24. 30

    Greta, I am not proposing a life form with a unified consciousness. I am suggesting that the planet is a life form similar to a coral reef. There are many individual consciousnesses in that reef. With caution and caveats, I would also say that a bee hive or an ant colony is a similar type of entity. Both can engage in collective action and respond to stimuli although each individual actor has its own consciousness. There is not evidence of a unified mind in either a bee hive or an ant colony.
    In terms of evidence, I would like to use a common definition of life as “any living structure, such as a plant, animal, fungus or bacterium, capable of growth and reproduction”. It seems to me that this planet is growing, and reproducing as parts of it spread into space. Although the growth rate of this planet is very, very slow, the International Space Station is possibly evidence of growth.
    I am interested in your evidence that contradicts my theory that Earth is a very large life form (without supernatural abilities or a clearly identifiable unified mind)?
    If the Earth is a large life form, then could it be considered a god or a form of god? If people wished to hold the Earth as their sacred god which deserved great respect, then does such a god exist?
    Admittedly, this definition of god is close to the definition of god as “the tree outside of my apartment” which has very limit use in wider conversations. However, I think that the entire planet as a god theory would have a little more traction and common acceptance as a religious belief especially in light of the current entusiasm about protecting the environment and the worries about global climate change.
    For the record, I am trying to draw a fine line between my theory and another unusual belief about Earth being a god. Some people believe in the existence of a god Gaia which is the planet Earth. The adherents of the Gaia theory do believe that the Earth has a consciousness separate from the individual life forms who inhabit its surface.
    The conscousness of the god I am describing is only the result of the numerous conscious individuals on the planet communicating with each other. The comparison of the World Wide Web to a giant brain have been a little overdone in science fiction, but similarities do exist between theories about computer science and neuroscience. My analogy creates a very simple level of consciousness. So, where brain cells pass electrical energy, humans pass verbal or written information. I am not trying to say that the Earth god is very smart, but through the slow process of evolution, a level of self-awareness and unified action seems to be taking place. I will refer to my space station example again which a distant objective observer might consider as evidence that this planet is an intelligent life form.

  25. 31

    Blondin, as a Unitarian Universalist, I am not seeking an atheist seal of approval. Atheists are one of the many people who attend Unitarian Universalist churchs. Their attendance is welcome and no seal of approvals are exchanged between either group.
    You ask me why I want to blend my sciencific beliefs with my religious beliefs. That is, again, because I am a Unitarian Universalist. I am seeking a religious truth in a church that does not require me to leave my brains at the sanctuary door. I would like to have a level of integrity within my beliefs and ideals. I am trying to avoid the contradictions that often come with most people’s comparisons of their religious beliefs and their scientific beliefs.
    In a previous post, Steve, mentioned one of the beliefs of the unitarians as “Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis”. Blending science and religion is not something out of line for Unitarian Universalists. In that regard, I could be called an “orthodox unitarian”. (Please forgive my inside the church joke, unitarians consider themselves very unorthodox.)
    Finally, as a Unitarian Universalist, I would most clearly not say that, “all those other religions are crap”. Unitarian Universalists have collectively decided to hold a very different view, we believe that there is wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.

  26. 32

    Michael wrote:
    I am interested in your evidence that contradicts my theory that Earth is a very large life form (without supernatural abilities or a clearly identifiable unified mind)?
    I want to borrow a brief explanation from Wikipedia about “burden of proof” as it relates to epistemology (branch of philosophy as it relates to knowledge):
    This burden of proof is often asymmetrical and typically falls more heavily on the party that makes either an ontologically positive claim, or makes a claim more “extraordinary,” that is farther removed from conventionally accepted facts.
    The person making the ontologically more positive and “extraordinary” claim here isn’t Greta. All she has said here is that the evidence supporting a “unified life and conscience” claim is lacking at this time.
    In this case, the burden of proof here is asymmetric and it’s really up to you to prove your “unified life” hypothesis.
    Even if Greta could not disprove your idea, that doesn’t make it true in the empirical and methodological naturalism sense of the word. To suggest otherwise would be an example of the “argument from ignorance” logical fallacy [asserts that a proposition is necessarily true because it has not been proven false (or vice versa)].
    Then Michael wrote
    Finally, as a Unitarian Universalist, I would most clearly not say that, “all those other religions are crap”. Unitarian Universalists have collectively decided to hold a very different view, we believe that there is wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.
    As a humanist and atheist Unitarian Universalist, I find that much of the “wisdom” in the world’s religions is what they say about the humans who created them.
    A religion — like any other collection of stories — provides us insight to the humans who created the story and to humanity in general through the metaphors.
    An example of a useful metaphor can be found in the story of Abraham and Issac and how this story can be used to comment on the struggles of BGLT youth looking for parental support.
    Too many traditionally religious parents are more than willing to be Abraham and sacrifice their children because that’s what they think God wants them to do. These parents overlook a central aspect of the story — someone who is less powerful than God can tell you that you shouldn’t sacrifice your child.
    In the Abraham-Issac story, it was an angel who stopped Abraham before he killed his child.
    For modern-day BGLT teens who are being offered by their parents as as a sacrifice to God, the metaphorical “angel” that tries to stop the parents from hurting their children just might be the local PFLAG group in the community.
    Unfortunately, this use of metaphor is necessary because we have a world with good and decent people often find themselves hurting others because they think this is what God or religion demands of them. The use of metaphor may help us reach those who are religious and turn them from more harmful types of religion to less harmful type of religion.

  27. 33

    Michael: are you going to use non-standard definitions for all the words that you use?
    So far, everything you have said (that I have managed to figure out) is trivially correct, but you just keep claiming that we are wrong because you substitute your own meanings into the words we are using. This is not clever or original, it is just annoying.

  28. 34

    I am interested in your evidence that contradicts my theory that Earth is a very large life form (without supernatural abilities or a clearly identifiable unified mind)?

    Michael, as Steve Caldwell pointed out, the burden of proof is not on me — it’s on you, the one proposing the extraordinary claim. However, I will say that the hypothesis that “Earth is a very large life form” contradicts everything we know about life and evolution. The entirety of life on earth does not act as a unified being: it acts like billions upon billions of different beings in competition with one another. By any generally accepted definition of “life form,” it doesn’t qualify. (And no, it doesn’t reproduce. “Reproduction” means producing offspring similar in form to your own. Space junk does not qualify.)
    Basically, this hypothesis is what Daniel Dennett calls a “deepity.” A deepity is a statement that, read one way, is true but trivial, and read another way is profound but false. Life on earth can certainly be seen as a whole entity, in that any set of beings can be seen as a whole entity. The set of all mosquitoes and fruitbats can be seen as a whole entity. That doesn’t tell us anything about mosquitoes or fruitbats: it has no explanatory or predictive power. It’s true, but trivial. But in any meaningful or profound sense, it’s false. The entirety of life on Earth does not act in any way like a unified life form.
    Here’s more on this, from RationalWiki.

  29. 35

    As for this:

    You ask me why I want to blend my sciencific beliefs with my religious beliefs. That is, again, because I am a Unitarian Universalist. I am seeking a religious truth in a church that does not require me to leave my brains at the sanctuary door.

    Michael: This is just begging the question. Why do you think it’s important to have religious beliefs — or beliefs you call religious? Isn’t it possible that the most accurate and consistent “religious truth” is that religion isn’t true?
    And if you reject the supernatural, why do you want to call your philosophy and approach to life “religion”? Why do you want to re-define that word, to the point where it’s unrecognizable to the overwhelming majority of people who use it, just so you can keep hanging on to it? Why can’t you simply call your philosophy and approach to life a philosophy and approach to life? Why do you want to call it a religion?

  30. 36

    The problem with religion (in the usual ‘supernatural’ sense) is that it encourages non-scientific, illogical thinking which can lead to bad decisions or harmful actions. The kind of fuzzy thinking that supports acceptance of superstitions and sinister religious practices is hard enough to combat without new-agey, metaphorical redefinitions of terms blurring the lines.
    It seems to me that efforts to encourage ‘less harmful types of religion’ are counter-productive. If there were observed circumstances or natural occurrences that were best explained by some kind of Earth-as-a-giant-organism model then pursuing such models might have some merit but would have nothing to do with religion. Inventing superficially consistent theories just for the sake of creating a religion that is not really a religion is just adding more crap to the crap heap.

  31. 37

    Greta, I would like to call Unitarian Universalism a religion because it is generally called a religion by the rest of the world. In fact, Wikipedia refers to it as a religious community, so I am not creating some uniquely individual definition of religion as I have done with my conception of god.
    I also want to return to the beginning discussion or debating point of this blog. Do all religions seek the Atheist Seal of Approval?
    I think I have submitted evidence that the Unitarian Universalism is a religion and the members of that church are not all seeking the Atheist Seal of Approval.
    My intention for writing on this blog was not to espouse my beliefs about the existence of god. I merely answered a question on that topic when it was given to me. I really just want to challenge the idea that all people who have a religion seek the Atheist Seal of Approval. Many atheists are members of the Unitarian Universalist Church, and I think that Richard Dawkins would suggest that unitarians are really atheists if we were to ask a group of fundamental christians their opinion of the unitarian religion. That leads to the conflicted conclusion that the Unitarian Universalist Church could be called an atheist church by a large number of people. Clearly, the concept of an atheistic religion is a difficult idea to explain, but I don’t think that a so called atheistic church, which could describe a Unitarian Universalist Church, would need to obtain an atheistic seal of approval.
    So, can we set aside the diversion of my personal beliefs about god and a definition of life on this planet, and return to a discussion (or debate) about whether all religions seek the atheist seal of approval? I don’t think unitarians are looking for a seal as much as they are looking for a good discussion.
    Let me end with a unitarian’s joke. When God was building road to the pearly gates he put up a sign that pointed to heaven up in one direction and hell in the other direction down. However, to make the unitarians happy, he put up a third sign pointing to the left that said “Discussion Forum on the Existence of Heaven and Hell, this way.” So, as an “orthodox” unitarian, I must say that I am enjoying our discussions.

  32. 38

    Do all religions seek the Atheist Seal of Approval?

    I never said that they did. I said that many religious and spiritual believers seek the Atheist Seal of Approval. Many. Not all. Please re-read the piece more carefully. Thank you.

  33. 39

    Good point Greta. At the beginning of your piece you do use the word many. I stand corrected. I guess I was confused by a statement later in the piece. That caused me to misunderstand the tone of your piece, and think that you were actually talking about all religions throughout your piece.
    “They’re all annoying. And all religions are harmful, out of touch with reality, and contradicted by reason and evidence.”
    Your final line in your initial blog was also a bit confusing to me.
    “After all — you’re not giving us yours.”
    I hope I have been able to make it clear that atheists are more than welcome at a Unitarian Universalists Church. Their beliefs are fully respected and appreciated. In fact, if you ever did join a UU congregation, you would probably be encouraged to start an atheists discussion group among other things to help extol and explain your atheist’s viewpoint. I won’t take the idea of exchanging of seals of approval as a serious suggestion because I think unitarians universalists and atheists have a healthy relationship with each other that goes well above any such imaginary tokens.

  34. 40

    I hope I have been able to make it clear that atheists are more than welcome at a Unitarian Universalists Church.

    Yes, I understand that. That wasn’t my point. My point is that religious believers (a category that Unitarian Universalists may or may not fall into) think atheists are mistaken, in exactly the same way that atheists think religious believers are mistaken.

  35. 41

    You’re absolutely right. Many religious believers are intent on getting atheists’ approval for their beliefs. Conversely, many don’t.
    I happen to be one of those who really couldn’t give a damn because I don’t believe in “Religion”; I believe in a “Creator”.
    That’s no more a religion that you believing the universe was created from nothingness. The only difference is your supposition is totally illogical.
    What I’m curious about though is why atheists are so nonvocal regarding the issue of a kosher tax on practically all food products in the market.
    It seems reasonable to assume that if anyone should be screaming bloody blue murder about being forced to pay a religious tax on what they eat, it would be the atheists. But not a peep.
    Afraid of being called “anti-Semitic” perhaps? That shouldn’t hold you back because the fact of the matter is the vast majority of modern Jewry aren’t even “Semites”. It’s one of the deceptions they foist on the public so they can smear anyone who opposes their racist policies.
    On a related note, how do atheists feel about Israel occupying Palestine and forcing the inhabitants to live like prisoners in their own land? You must be aware Israel’s actions are based on scripture from their holy book that says “God” promised the region to the Jews. You seem pretty tight-lipped on that issue as well.
    Lots of articles on porno and deviant sexual activities though. I guess debauchery has much more significance in your world than ethnic cleansing and social injustice. Now I understand why you’d rather not believe that one day you might be held accountable for your actions.
    The other comment I wanted to make was on your AlterNet post, “Best Christmas Songs for Atheists”. Shouldn’t that be “Holiday Songs”? After all, you are the anti-Christ, are you not?

  36. 42

    That’s no more a religion that you believing the universe was created from nothingness
    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I certainly don’t hold any such belief.
    What I’m curious about though is why atheists are so nonvocal regarding the issue of a kosher tax on practically all food products in the market
    The reason I don’t talk much about this is that I’ve never heard of it before.
    However, according to wikipedia, this is a myth:
    In 1975 the cost per item for obtaining kosher certification was estimated by The New York Times as being 6.5 millionths of a cent ($0.000000065) per item for a General Foods frozen-food item

  37. 43

    Re Vanessa Adams: Interesting. I find that I am willing to tolerate a lot more bigotry when it’s aimed at me, and groups I’m a member of, then when it’s aimed at others. The anti-atheist ignorance and bigoted sex-negative ranting… that I can handle. The anti-Semitic grotesquery? Not so much. Banned.

  38. 44

    I’ve become persuaded over the years – and some of above posts support my belief – that some people, perhaps many, have brains that are wired to need to believe in, and be part of, something larger than themselves.
    In society this is usually a deity or religion, but can be a structured organization such as the military.
    I’m not saying that everyone who is religious or in the military has this kind of predisposition, but those who have it are attracted to those institutions and beliefs.
    In short, I submit that there is something that goes beyond childhood indoctrination. Some are simply “made” to believe – or to be part of something larger than themselves (or not). Blaise Pascal in Pensees said something to this effect centuries ago.
    Perhaps that is the attraction of UU to otherwise rational people: the need to be part of something larger than themselves.

  39. 45

    Vanessa: ”what” “kosher tax”? Yes, a food manufacturer has the option to have their products certified kosher. There is a fee for this. It is up to the manufacturer to judge whether the additional sales justify the certification cost.
    You can also get food certified Halal, Organic, Fair Trade or sustainable. Not to mention all the certifications for other kinds of goods, like cruelty-free cosmetics.
    What’s so special about kosher? It’s not like UL or CE or ROHS certification that is legally required in some places. What’s the kosher tax on bacon?
    As for a Creator… now that’s illogical. I don’t know where the universe came from, but me and the universe I live in is what you get if you make about 1080 (a very large, but finite number) neutrons (amazingly simple things) go boom.
    I don’t know how that happened, but there are a lot of very smart people working very hard on that question. But there’s no need to assume any sort of intelligence, purpose, or anything else more complicated and implausible than those 1080 neutrons that came before them and created them.
    The universe as a whole does not care if I have the morals of Rishabh Dev or Idi Amin. I care, and have good reason to care, but not because Santa Claus is going to put me on his naughty list.

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    Two more reasons: certain brands of theists may believe that they are doing you a favour by trying to convert you, since they might save you from Hell—a fate, literally, worse than death. On the other hand, transactional analysts point out that converting someone is reassuring to theists who have a sneaking suspicion that what they believe is a myth. I suspect that getting their agreement that a religious point of view makes sense is a milder, but potent, form of assurance.

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