Bruce Sheiman recently published a book descriptively entitled "An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better Off With Religion Than Without It".

A blog written by a self-professed fence-sitting agnostic gave it a
positive reivew and provided a lot of nice HL Mencken quotes.

Bruce Sheiman issued this poorly considered response:


Given that Mencken famously made up the history of the bathtub, only to see it propagated in encyclopedias for decades thereafter, he knows a few things about making things up. And he had little use for the made-up stories of religion. Neither do I.

But as I say in my book, religion is more about meaning and purpose than facts and events. And I want to congratulate you on offering the best interpretation of my book’s reason for being compared to other reviewers.

Religion has value despite its being scientifically false. And after living more than half a lifetime, I would rather live the “inauthentic life” of a believer than in the stark, naked atheistic reality that we are all “food for worms” and that the universe cares not for my existence. That makes me an “unhappy atheist.” And I assert that most atheists are unhappy with their creedless belief system.

It is so much more fulfilling to believe in something than nothing – or, worse — to believe in an anti-belief, i.e., to base my existence on the antithesis of someone else’s belief. Atheists can try to make that into a virtue (“free-thinkers living life courageously”). But as Dr. Phil asks, Would you rather be right or happy?

Given the choice, I would choose the latter. But as I make clear in my book, it is rarely a choice. Atheism or theism is what one is; it is not what one chooses. And that is precisely why the “debate” is a useless exercise: if belief or unbelief is not a choice, then all the argumentation in the world cannot change one’s position.

Alas, I remain an atheist.

Bruce Sheiman

What do you think of that? Has anyone read Bruce's book?

My response to Bruce Sheiman is in the comments below.

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The guy's a coward.
"Atheism or theism is what one is; it is not what one chooses."

When does this happen exactly? At conception? At birth? Upon baptism (either infant or believer style)?

Is it in the genes or the environment or does it arise from epigenisis wherein the environment steers the genome?

Can we or should we tamper with the process - Break the Spell as Dan Dennett describes it?

Let the experiments begin...
None of the above, actually. One cannot choose to believe anything, one simply comes to believe or disbelieve it. You could not, for example, suddenly decide that you believe that Mars is made up of Styrofoam. Nor could you decide that you believed that a race of aliens with green tentacles lived on a planet around a G2 class star in the Andromeda Galaxy.

You could profess those beliefs, but you couldn't just decide to actually believe them. Actual belief would take time, something that your mind could be convinced to accept as evidence and at least in the Mars case, a massive dose of delusion.

It's one of the core flaws in Pascal's Wager, the notion that belief can be chosen, rather than emerging from ones experiences.
Well said.
The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact than a drunken man is happier than a sober one.
--George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
I would not try to deconvert anyone, aggressively or otherwise. That should never be a goal for an atheist. However, educating people is quite different. The deconversion process is a solitary affair, for the most part. I did not become an atheist because I was told to. That, to me, would represent an "aggressive deconversion", or even coerced deconversion.

But, to switch gears a little, what is the difference between a person on their death bed and a person with years of life ahead of them? The difference is that one has no life left with which to be free of religious tyranny and be happy. It is too late for them, so why hobble their last moments with grief? The other person has a chance to stop worrying about hell, stop feeling guilty about things they shouldn't feel guilty about, and will get to enjoy their life without the shackles and delusions of religion.

Dawkins values life, this life, the only life that we know we have. Religion robs people of that life and encourages, cajoles, and guilts people into pinning their hopes of happiness on a second life, an after life.

And the claim that these people would have nothing to live for without religion in their lives just illustrates how detrimental religion really is, not how necessary it is.
I am all for educating people, but I would consider attempts to mock and ridicule people's religious beliefs and rituals, like the Blasphemy Day thing, to be aggressive.

There certainly is mixed feelings about things like Blasphemy Day. Mockery and derision are not a completely uncivilized tactic, though. Mockery and ridicule perform very important functions in society. Many times, bullying is used to bring conformity in the ranks, for good or for ill. But more over, how best to deal reasonably with a side that just doesn't see reason and is willfully ignorant? Yes, I think mockery and ridicule is a perfect way to do it. Not to change their minds, per se, but for the benefit of the lurkers. But there is a difference, a very important distinction, between mocking a person and mocking their beliefs. One I would find distasteful and the other I would consider great sport.

The person who was freed from religious tyranny may not have hell to worry about, but most of them think they're going to heaven, so they will have a difficult time dealing with imminent death if they believed strongly in personal immortality, and have never been able to come to terms with the realization that their life will soon end. That said, I'm not convinced that most religious people have a very strong belief that they have souls just waiting to break free. The fanatical fundamentalists are the only ones who seem to be certain that they're going to raptured soon and looking down on us as we struggle through the Tribulation and Armageddon etc.

I guess I do not know what you mean here, so forgive me if my response is not in line with your points.

Firstly, in my personal value system, I value things that are true. As Matt Dillahunty says, I want to know as many true things as possible and as few untrue things as possible. My personal feelings and comfort come secondary to that. I strongly feel that it is better to adapt to reality than to try and adapt reality to one's fantasies. I do not empathize with people who cannot handle their own mortality. This wishful thinking and self delusionment may lead to much happiness to the believer of such notions, but heroin makes people feel good, too. Denying I have cancer will not make the cancer go away. Pretending I have an eternal life to enjoy after this mortal one will not give me an eternal life to enjoy.

I can see this being the case with fundamentalists, but the casual religious crowd do not make the same investment in religion, so it's harder to argue that they are being deprived by going to church once a week and having vague notions about having a soul and being part of some divine plan.

On the surface, I agree with this. But the problem with the "casual" believer is that they support an infrastructure that gives power to the fundamenatlists. Also, churches and religions hold enormous sway in elections and voting despite rules meant to curb this. They may accept certain, undeniable truths that their predecessors denied, but they still hold science and progress back by rejecting other scientific truths, like evolution.

But superstition is strong in the human species. Many church goers may realize that hurricanes and tornadoes are not God angrily blowing at us or some other god's flatulance, but this doesn't stop many, many casually religious from seeing purpose and design in events. Many may believe that a deceased parent's favorite bird singing outside their window or a quarter found on the ground just when it was needed are signs from parted loved ones or God's generously helping hand. I know many people like this. And these particular things do not cause harm in and of themselves, but put this uncritical and superstitious mindset into play over a lifetime and throw it in with millions of other like minded folk, and the end result is a world that is lesser off.

The Salem Witch trials may seem like the artifact of olde tyme thinking, but look at certain places in Africa today where superstition kills Or that a "witch hunter" from Kenya who blamed car accidents in his village on witches, has the ear of a potential, if not viable, Presidential candidate for the U.S. Presidency. There are plenty of superstitions even in the U.S. that result in deaths, including children. Rejection of modern medicine in favor of prayer, or homeopathy, or fear of vaccines all also lead to unneccessary and easily preventable deaths. This type of disconnect with facts and reality runs rampant through out even the moderately religious population.

Focusing on certain areas of religious belief and incursion into secular life is the wrong way to go about fixing it, though. Religion is simply a symptom of uncritical minds, same as astrology or any other paranormal or psuedo-scientific woo. Education and critical thinking are what needs to be focused on in order to treat the disease. And once a critical mind has objectively evaluated religious claims, they will see that these ideas are fully deserving of ridicule and derision.

And ideas and beliefs should never be immune from examination, mockery, or ridicule.
But, pulling a stupid stunt like PZ Myers did by defiling crackers closes the doors to further conversation about the abuses of the Catholic priesthood.

While I agree that we shouldn't give Catholics a common enemy to rally around, I am afraid we already have. Anything that challenges their faith is a threat.

What PZ did was quite mundane and illustrated the fervent nature of peoples' sacred cows. I didn't think what he did was stupid at all, or that shocking. I mean, how does one "defile" a cracker? It is silly. And that is what he aimed to show and I think he did a good job of it. Not only did a cracker get *gasp* thrown in a trash can, so did a copy of the God Delusion and the Koran.

If Catholics ignore hundreds and hundreds of kids getting buggered by priests all because a cracker was thrown in the rubbish, then it is even more testament to the evil of dogma and religion.

What I meant is that there is an automatic assumption of Dawkins and other "new atheists" that everyone will be happier after deconversion.

I have never heard Dawkins say that everyone would be happier without religion. In fact, I can't think of any instance where a prominent atheist has contended that this would automatically be the case. You'd have to site a source on this one for me to look at.

But the fact that one is either happier or sadder after engaging reality doesn't change the fact of reality. Without religion, many might turn to astrology or psychics. This is no better. That is why critical thinking and education is more important than debunking fanciful claims. That is not to say that the latter is not without importance, though!

The problem is that Matt Dilahunty makes the mistake of thinking that 'everyone thinks like me, and wants the same things,' and that just is not the case.

Whatever Matt Dillahunty thinks is irrelevant. But I do not think he thinks that way. He knows that not everyone thinks like him and admits to such quite often on the Atheist Experience. But, I only brought him up to give him credit for that statement on knowledge of truth. Even if Joe the Angry Atheist was a real mean dude and nobody liked him, that doesn't change the fact that their is no compelling evidence for gods. If theists want to believe in nonsense, they are welcome to it. The problem is that religion is a virus and its nature is to spread and conquer.

The point is that the fundamentalist doesn't want authenticity if it contradicts their religious dogma, since they have already predetermined that a good argument against their doctrines is the work of the devil and they need to put their fingers in their ears to protect themselves from being led astray.

You would be surprised how many casual theists will take on the same defensive posture when you challenge their beliefs. While many won't go looking for that conversation, they will still vote for candidates that are anti-science, they will still indoctrinate their children, and they will still support churches that are nothing but large businesses that seek to expand and dominate.

But are we worried about the moderates' feelings? Should we spare them displays of reason and criticism? Give reverence to their sacred cows even as the organizations they support seek to foist their brands of silliness on the public at large?

Or should we soldier on, desensitize them to critical appraisals of their beliefs, and soon turn it into something as laughable and antiquated as when moderates used to believe in a geocentric universe or a flat Earth?
Also, PZ Myers' 'desecration' of the cracker was a specific and deliberate act done as a response to the demand that a student who had not eaten a cracker but instead pocketed it to show a friend should be impeached from his position on the student council and expelled from college. He did it to show how ridiculous such a demand was, and how a religion should not be permitted to enforce its beliefs on people who are not a part of them. That part always seems to get left out when people decry PZ's actions.
Thank you Dave. I had actually forgotten that part, myself. And you are right. Many Catholics painted it as a vicious and unprovoked attack.
And even more amusingly, several people were quick to claim 'He wouldn't insult Muslims that way, he'd be too afraid!', completely neglecting that he'd done the exact same thing to a Koran and a copy of the God Delusion, to show that there was no preferential treatment going on.


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