Atheism and the Public Sphere

Religious liberals and conservative moderates often recoil in the face of hard atheism. To them, atheism represents a sort callous disdain for an inoffensive source of succor and support. Why, they wonder, are people subjected to such rancorous ridicule for believing in something that brings them comfort?

Doubtless this reaction springs from a place of authenticity. There are plenty of atheists who scorn religion wholesale and excoriate its practitioners as frail imbeciles. And there are plenty of others who take no real offense at private religiosity but opportunistically assail believers with similar barbs. Why not? It’s good fun at the expense of an easy target. A bit of lazy recreation can go a long way. It’s shooting tin cans in the desert.

Because of this confusion, it’s worth making efforts to advance a more nuanced position. Naturally, I can’t speak for the entire population of atheists. The atheist community is diverse. Some, like me, disavow religious belief because it is contrary to a worldview built around reason and evidence. Faith is a childish epistemology. It can’t be reconciled with science and careful reasoning. Others disdain religion for emotional reasons.

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Unmasking Leviathan: The Radical Right’s Attempt to Reshape American Politics

The world can be a scary place. This is a view exacerbated by popular media, which tends to focus attention on sources of violence and despair in disproportion to their prevalence. No surprise there – these things translate into ad revenue more readily than a cold assessment of reality. So it is that polls have the public rating ISIS and North Korea as greater threats than climate change. An exceedingly large portion of Americans also see their own government as a top threat.



There are some good reasons for this. Foremost among them is the loss of legitimacy brought about as private interests seize more and more of the public domain, bending government action toward narrow aims and away from the public interest. The U.S. government has grown exceedingly expensive and unwieldy over the years, even as it has grown less and less capable of acting in the interests of the majority. A desire to rein it in is not misplaced.

However, disguised beyond all this concern over ISIS and North Korea and the U.S. government is a more fundamental threat to the American way of life. That it is so poorly recognized, despite being so well evidenced, is both depressing and disturbing. Because the fact of the matter is that there are forces working to reshape American democracy in a manner most citizens would likely find objectionable. And to significant extent, they are succeeding.

Currently, a cadre of wealthy Americans and right wing intellectuals is working to transform the United States into something rather twisted. Their core motivating principle is that the accumulation of capital takes precedence over all other values. Indeed, it is in their view the ultimate arbiter of value. To them, human worth scales with earnings.

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The Cosmos update has creationists clamoring for equal time. Do they deserve it? (spoiler: no)


Creationist are in a huff about the presentation of accurate science on television. This should come as no surprise to absolutely anyone – religious fundamentalists seem to find little of greater offense than the presentation of factual information to the general public. Currently, creationisms most vocal blatherskites are complaining that Neil deGrasse Tyson is giving their perspective about the origins and nature of the universe short-shrift. To be absolutely fair, short-shrift is exactly what their beliefs deserve in any forum outside of a community college mythology class, but they’re making a fair amount of racket over the affair anyway. That point aside, over at Think Progress, Betsy Phillips has written a nice editorial arguing that the Cosmos series has given creationist claims plenty of attention. The problem is that creationist beliefs tend to crumble when subjected to the scrutiny of  a scientific lens.

All ways of knowing have foundational assumptions – for science, those assumptions are that the universe is an ultimately intelligible product of material (and therefore observable) phenomena, that the only way to derive knowledge about the universe is through the rational analysis of empirical evidence, and that all knowledge about how the universe works is provisional.

Perhaps the best point about why creationism isn’t science and why creationists can’t (usually) do science (well) is the nature of their a priori assumptions. Their starting point is one of unshakable certainty – that the universe is the way it is because god made it that way. This is not a hypothesis set for testing. It is an irrefutable truth. No new fact will change the creationist’s mind. Unfortunately, the very notion of god does not exist independently of religious beliefs. The particular form it takes is the product of historical contingency. There is no set of observations about the world that, absent extant religious doctrine, would lead one to justifiably infer the existence of divine action. Claims to the contrary typically take the form of “phenomena A is complex or as yet unexplained by science, therefore god must have done it.” It is a way of saying, “I can’t fathom how the world could differ from the way I believe it to be – the way I believe the world to be must be accurate.”

The seriousness of creationist claims to scientific merit is further undermined by their stubborn refusal to modify their position in light of empirical evidence. It’s not just a matter of their argument being logically fallacious (though it certainly is that) – it’s a matter of their argument being scientifically untenable. The Bible is littered with very specific claims about the nature of god and his workings. Where empirically tractable, these purportedly factual claims have been routinely falsified. A 6,000 year old earth? Wrong. A great, world-swamping flood? False. A species founded by two individuals and subsequent generations of hardcore incest? Both wrong and gross. Phenotypic differences in skin pigmentation are the arbitrary dispensation of a petty cosmic prick, rather than an adaptation to differential exposure to UV light? False and racist. All languages appeared suddenly and are necessarily unrelated? Untrue and ridiculous. Creationists willingly ignore all of this and stubbornly persist in their beliefs anyway. That’s hardly a scientific outlook.

Brass tacks, it’s not worth taking creationists to task on the abject absurdity of their beliefs. The point here is not to disprove their ideas. They wouldn’t even worth seriously entertaining if it weren’t for the fact that their (rather pronounced) persistence is so deleterious to the successful function of a free and just society. This year alone, tax payers will fork out nearly $1 billion dollars paying to teach creationist hokum to impressionable youths. This is not only illegal, it is ethically abominable.


The ultimate point here is to highlight the fact that creationist beliefs are not, in any conceivable sense, scientific. Rather, they are the objectively non-scientific byproducts of the crude exigencies of Western history. A batch of bizarre superstitions that, god willing (wink, wink), will one day be relegated to some humanities dustbin with Enki, Zeus, Odin, and the pantheon of dead deities. They may be deserving of equal time in a mythology class, but in a science class they aren’t even worthy of mention. The fact that some people think otherwise is one of the greatest embarrassments of the modern world.