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Past Debates: George Smith

Chat with George Smith on atheism and objectivism, 2/18/2001

Sharron & Phil: Does it seem to you that freethought used to be more accepted than it is today?

George Smith: I think freethought is generally more active and accepted today than anytime in the past half century. The highpoint, however, was probably in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Sharron & Phil: ... just seems that our leaders today must profess Christianity, whereas early leaders of our country were more liberal.

Massimo: Sharron and Phil, our leaders' public professions are indeed alarming, but I wonder if they are in some sense the reflection of an undeniable increase in the secularization of our society.

Melissa: Do you have a favorite atheist/freethought organization, whether local or national, that you belong to--if so, what is it?

George Smith: I don't belong to any organizations, freethought or otherwise. I've never been much of a joiner, though I have frequently spoken for freethought groups over the past 25 years. One problem I have is that freethought organizations often mix political causes with purely educational ones, and, as a libertarian, I don't always agree with the political agenda. I wish there were more freethought groups with a strictly educational purpose.

Melissa: Does the Freedom From Religion Foundation get too political?

Massimo: George, so I take it you are no good friends with Paul Kurtz and his Humanist 2000 manifesto... ;-)

George Smith: Massimo, well we have our differences. Melissa, for me it does, though I think they do a lot of very good work.

Massimo: Could you give us some examples? Most people here know Dan Barker, and he didn't strike me as particularly political.

Melissa: Such as? They seem to be strict state/church separationists, but they did go a little beyond that in the push to get Bibles out of hotel rooms.

George Smith: Massimo, well, freethinkers often oppose schools vouchers and tax credits for private schools, whereas I support them. Melissa, I agree on the church-state separation issue, but that is sometimes a matter of interpretation.

Massimo: I see, good point. Most people here would have a problem with school vouchers also. Could you expand on your opinion on the matter?

Melissa: As a libertarian, you would probably argue that the hotel owners can have whatever literature in the rooms that they choose. On the other hand, the freethinkers weren't trying to pass a law, but were just writing letters to let people know that Bibles aren't universally adored.

Sharron & Phil: ... ditto, here, George, on the school vouchers - we agree with you.

George Smith: Melissa, I have no problem with voluntary social crusades. It's when they become political that I get nervous. Massimo, I generally favor diversity and choice in all fields, including education. I'm not a big fan of the public school system. For one thing, I think that any state educational system will tend to promote one kind of orthodoxy or another.

Massimo: *Both* Sharron and Phil agree with the vouchers? I'm not surprised about Phil, but I thought Sharron knew better... ;-)

Melissa: That's what schools are for, to inculcate the values of one particular system.

George Smith: Melissa, yes I know. Historically, a lot of freethinkers (e.g., Herbert Spencer) were classical liberal types who vehemently opposed state education, because they didn't like the uniformity of opinion that it promotes.

Massimo: George, the promotion of state orthodoxy has historically been a danger only in non-democratic societies. The point of public schools is to guarantee education for everyone, which seems to be a fundamental part of having a democracy.

George Smith: Massimo, my view of state education is somewhat less rosy than yours.

Sharron & Phil: Seems to us that a larger issue is that public schools are often mediocre compared to private ones.

Massimo: I really don't see any uniformity of opinion coming out of my students that have attended public schools. On the other hand, I see a dangerous uniformity of opinion among home schoolers, since many of them come out of religious fundamentalist backgrounds.

<Anne>: George, do you favour vouchers for private schools that teach creationism?

George Smith: Massimo, I have no problem with fundamentalists instilling their own values in their own children. I think freethought is strong enough to hold its own in a competitive marketplace of ideas.

Carl Ledendecker: Any society must have a considerable number of shared values. If critical thinking is the key one then uniformity of opinion doesn't seem to be a necessary result. Poll any freethought, etc. group.

Melissa: The uniformity may be that public schools raise good little consumerist culture adherents who will grow up to seek good jobs and credit cards and shop in malls.

Massimo: Sharron/Phil, the mediocrity of public schools (which is not as much of a problem as it is perceived to be - there are plenty of bad private schools) can be attributed to the larger (mandatory) classes, less funding, and especially the fact that public schools can't pick and choose the best students.

George Smith: Anne, I think parents should be able to use to their own money to educate their children as they please. The problem with vouchers is that money is first funneled through government. I would prefer tax credits instead for that reason.

Massimo: Melissa, I agree on that kind of uniformity, but that's hardly the result of public schools. Do you think people who come out of private ones are not consumeristic?

Carl Ledendecker: As a long time private school administrator/teacher, I can assure you that there are lots of "bad' private schools. I also attended a very good public school.

Massimo: George, it seems to me that you are not putting enough weight on the side of children. Parents have rights, but children do too. And it seems to me that the right to a good education is one of them.

George Smith: Someone earlier asked about whether politicians etc. must be religious, or put up a religious front. That is true, but it has always been more or less true in America.

scott k: I don't think parents should be able to control education for their children. Are they furniture for them to carve on?

Massimo: Exactly!

<Anne>: George, let me up the ante. If a school was teaching that the Holocaust was a hoax (as happened here in Canada) would you say that's okay if the parents were all neo-Aryans?

George Smith: Anne, yes, even then. I don't want the government in the business of determining orthodoxy, however repugnant we may find particular doctrines. Plus, freethinkers are bound to come out with the short end of the stick in that kind of system.

George Smith: Massimo, I'm a big advocate of children's rights, which is one reason I oppose compulsory education. I think the desires of parent and children alike should be taken into account. If a child wishes to attend a public school, then that's okay with me.

Massimo: George, but children, by nature, don't have enough maturity to make that kind of decision. Which is why affording them as good an education as we can will help them later make whatever decision they want, including the one of rejecting critical thinking and becoming fundamentalists.

George Smith: Massimo, it depends on what age you are talking about.

Melissa: Who's the authority who will "take into account" the opposing wishes of child and parent and impose one outcome?

Massimo: Another problem seems to me that when you say that freethought will win in the marketplace of ideas you are discounting the emotional power of obscurantist beliefs. What's the measure of "fitness" by which good ideas are going to win in the philosophical arena?

Andy: Freethinkers are definitely coming out on the short end of faith-based funding, shool or otherwise.

George Smith: Melissa, when those wishes conflict, then we may have a serious problem. I agree with that. I would generally say that when children reach the "age of reason" (which I would place at a lower age than many do) that they cannot be forced to attend a school against their will.

Massimo: Melissa, the "authority" should be the body of professionals, the teachers. It seems to me that in America there simply is no respect for the education profession. People behave like anybody could teach. They wouldn't adopt the same attitude if they were under the surgeon's knife and had to start telling him where to cut...

George Smith: Melissa, some personal background is relevant here. I was a high-school dropout myself. I hated the restrictive and bureaucratic atmosphere of formal schooling, long before I had a political ideology. I think children, like adult, are different and have diverse needs. The problem with public schools (or some of them, at least) is that they tend to adopt a "one size fits all" policy.

<Anne>: George, don't private schools have the same restrictive and bureaucratic atmosphere? (Mine certainly did)

George Smith: I would like to see freethought schools that teach critical thinking, and which could be attended by poor people via vouchers or something similar.

Carl Ledendecker: The restrictive bureaucratic elements are educational philosophy problems not public education problems.

Andy: Government money for private schools comes with significant restrictions, changing the marketplace.

Massimo: I agree about the "one size fits all" attitude, but that is due to the intrinsic limitations I mentioned above (large numbers of students, small numbers of teachers, etc.).

George Smith: Anne, Carl, you are both right; there is a certain uniformity inherent in formal education itself. But at least in an educational free-market, there would be a greater diversity of schools than we know have.

Melissa: So, this is a very good example of an issue that can be contentious within a freethought group!

George Smith: I think home schooling, for example, is excellent for some children, but may not be appropriate for others. It all depends.

Massimo: George, surely you understand that a voucher system would *not* allow poor families to do anything at all. There would never be enough resources for that. They are only going to help people who can already afford a private education.

Sharron & Phil: Not true, Massimo.

Massimo: Sharron/Phil, just look at the numbers...

George Smith: Historically, a lot of "heretical" opinions were taught (e.,g in England) by Dissenting Academies and other private schools that were opposed to orthodox views.

<Anne>: Is it a coincidence that the same people pushing voucher schools (e.g. Jerry Falwell) were fighting for segregated schools in the '60's?

Massimo: S/P, you of all people should know how much it costs to send a kid to private school. You think that a couple of thousand dollars a year (if that much) is going to allow a poor family to do it?

Melissa: If Massimo and I had a couple of kids to send to private school, we'd have to get a 100% tax credit and pay zero taxes to make the annual tuition.

Sharron & Phil: Not all private schools cost as much.

Massimo: S/P, right, but those that don't are likely not to be better than the public system (or even worse).

Sharron & Phil: Don't agree ...

Massimo: George, back to your idea of a free market of ideas. What's the currency? What is the mechanism that would guarantee its success?

George Smith: Massimo, that's a complex subject, but one way of looking at it is to look historically at the reasons for establishing public education in America. Virtually none of the reasons had to do with educating poor children, but with raising good (i.e., Protestant) citizens.

<Anne>: What is the reason for public education now?

Andy: I don't think there is enough profit in saving poor kids from being an underclass and a life of crime to provide much of an incentive to entrepreneurs.

Massimo: George, I agree on the historical roots of public education, but the current system does not work that way and it is not maintained for that reason.

George Smith: Massimo, I'm not sure what you mean by the "currency." In general I think competition has beneficial effects, even if many of the competitors are orthodox in their beliefs.

Melissa: Anne: to raise white-collar slaves of Mother Consumer Culture.

Massimo: On the currency thing. Natural selection works because the currency is number of progeny. In economics it is dollars. What's the equivalent for ideas?

George Smith: I discuss the idea of a marketplace in ideas in "Philosophies of Toleration" (in "Atheism, Ayn Rand and other Heresies." It's an old idea in classical liberalism, one that we find in Locke and others, and it's a very good one, imo.

Massimo: George, I'd like to move to a different topic, if people don't mind. As the title of your latest book says, "why atheism?" This is obviously a question many of us have had to face at one time or another. What's your sound-bite response to it?

George Smith: Massimo, Locke and others believed that truth would eventually triumph in a free ideological marketplace. Others, however, (such as J.S. Mill) were more skeptical of this. I think truth stands the best chance when it is allow to compete freely.

George Smith: Massimo, my short response is, Why not atheism? (Just kidding)

Massimo: OK, one more round on truth in the marketplace of ideas. It seems to me that Mill was much wiser than Locke on this respect. He realized that economic and ideological forces are much more forceful than "truth."

George Smith: Massimo, actually it has to do with the issue of establishing credibility (which I discuss in Chapter One.) If people don't regard atheism as credible, then won't even take the time to consider it seriously, regardless of its intrinsic merits.

Melissa: The best products and services don't even win in the free economic marketplace.

Massimo: Thanks, Melissa! Like VHS vs. Beta, or the evil empire of Microsoft...

Sharron & Phil: The best *affordable* products do seem to win.

<Anne>: George, I think you're right, but not completely. Truth has to be packaged attractively if it's going to sell. Freethinking is a scary philosophy that doesn't compete well. Two millennia ago Lucretius coated his materialist message with honey-coated words to make it go down easier.

Carl Ledendecker: There is in reality no such thing as a truly free market place. There are always powers of various types that distort it.

George Smith: Massimo, Mill may have had a point, but what is the alternative? Any kind of political orthodoxy is bound to be detrimental to the free flow of ideas, to criticism, and therefore to the pursuit of truth. Mill, though he favored some governmental supervision of education, was essentially a "voluntarist" (as the opponents of state education were called in the 19th century.)

Massimo: Carl, you are right, but it seems naive to ignore those forces and keep saying that if the market place were *really* free things would work out. We don't know, and it surely ain't gonna happen...

scott k: Freedom is just a way of saying that you can wiggle here in this so-and-so context. Where does the context (market place) come from?

Massimo: OK, back to atheism. What do you mean by "credibility"? Moral?

George Smith: Melissa, it depends on what you mean by "best." Consumer preference determines what sells in a free market, and I agree that this may not always be best as judged by some "objective" standard of value.

Melissa: Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose...

Massimo: George, are you sure you don't want to have your cake and eat it too? You told Melissa that the market forces might not result in an objectively better product, but you claim that truth will eventually win in the market place of ideas.

Andy: The marketplace of ideas needs an Alan Greenspan. The Federal Reserve is asleep at the job.

Melissa: Good one, Andy

George Smith: Massimo, I agree with Aristotle (in Rhetoric) that credibility is largely a matter of personal deportment, i.e., of how atheist present themselves and their arguments to others.

Melissa: Sometimes deceptive advertising and vulture-like business practices have an effect, too.

<Anne>: Perhaps the real issue here is how to make freethinking humanism a more attractive ideology to the masses.

Massimo: Anne, good point, the problem - as we all know - is that freethinkers have had a historical difficulty at presenting their ideas positively (as opposed to simply "I don't believe in god").

George Smith: Massimo, I don't think truth will necessarily win out in a free market of ideas; I merely meant to say that it stands the best chance in that system.

Sharron & Phil: The masses want "authority" and "certainty".

George Smith: Massimo, plus, I think ideological competition tends to breed toleration, a willingness to accept different views.

<Anne>: George, in it's present state, truth is not palatable to most people.

George Smith: Anne, agreed. That has always been, and probably always will be, the case. As B. Russell said, "Most people would rather die than think; in fact, many do."

Sharron & Phil: One person's truth may not be the next person's truth - it's about a difference in values.

Massimo: S/P, please don't sound like post-modernists... ;-) Yes, values can be different and incommensurable, but truth (in the sense of things that work or don't in a society or in the universe at large) is a different matter. Try to repeal the law of gravity...

George Smith: Sharron, How people will view "truth" depends largely on their theoretical perspective. Things that seem absurd to a freethinker may seem perfectly reasonable to a Christian. I think the best we can hope for is to promote a general regard for critical thinking in all spheres, and then let the chips fall where they may.

Massimo: And yet, secular humanism has so much to offer in the positive sense. Look at the philosophy of Peter Singer, to mention somebody we have all discussed recently (for one of our book clubs).

scott k: In chapter 1 of _Why Atheism?_ you say 'proof of a negative' is irrational for the atheist because she can not look everywhere to prove it. In this way, asserting 'God does not exist' is trivial. Theodore Schick, however, in the recent _Free Inquiry Magazine_ argues "[t]he principle that no one can prove an unrestricted negative, however, is itself an unrestricted negative." Thus, it is self-refuting. So, do you believe reason is a good tool for atheists to talk about gods? Or, is the atheist -like the theist- guilty of using nonsensical statements? I mean, aren't there 3 kinds of propositions: logical, empirical, and nonsensical. ;)

George Smith: scott, I think freethinkers can convince may Christians that critical thinking is generally a good thing, even in religion. That is the essential point. It's not all that hard to deconvert a Christian to atheism, if you want to take the time and effort, which can be considerable.

<Anne>: Does secular humanism have a theme statement that inspires people and draws them together? If it doesn't, how can it compete with those movements that do?

George Smith: Anne, good point. That has been a problem discussed by freethinkers for many years. There were various efforts (esp. in the 19th century) to form what amount to freethought "churches," in order to provide the kind of community that religion does. They generally failed, however, because atheists disagree about a lot of things.

scott k: btw, my question goes to the credibility of atheism (I hope).

Massimo: George, while many mainstream Christians would agree with your statement about the merits of critical thinking, I always thought that was odd. How is *any* ideology based on faith going to benefit from critical thinking? Won't then people find out that there is no sanity clause (as Chico Marx said)?

George Smith: Massimo, well, you have asked the key question, which doesn't have any easy answer.

Sharron & Phil: Critical thinking is possible *within* a religious dogma - they just begin with a different set of assumptions.

Massimo: S/P, you can't delimit critical thinking. Once you start, you never know how far you'll end up. It's a habit of mind, you can't say "here and no further."

<Anne>: Secular humanists don't have the spirit and zeal of religious converts. Can you imagine any group of humanists putting a copy of Carl Sagan's Cosmos in hotel rooms? boo

Melissa: And we're not joiners.

Massimo: As our friend Herb Silverman says, getting freethinkers to agree is like herding cats. A byproduct of believing in critical thinking, I suppose.

scott k: herding cats! I have the image.

Andy: Scott: Atheism includes calling the existence of "god" a meaningless question without a better definition.

scott k: andy: I suppose what kind of atheist. One that disbelieves in the existence of gods has some special problems. Because, disbelief requires making nonsensical statements about undefined beings. ;) Rsyxz does not exist! ;)

George Smith: Here's a story you may like. Years ago during the sixties (while I was in high school) and atheist friend and I used to attend a lot of church services, where we would do "missionary work" after the services were over. Well, from the Truth-seeker organization (then run by the lunatic James Hervey Robinson), we got these little pamphlets called "A passage from Mark." These were anti religious quotes from Mark Twain. But they were the same size as religious leaflets, so we put a bunch in an empty slot in a holder in a Baptist church. They stayed there for months. People would pick them up along with the religious literature, and we would replenish the supply when they ran out. No one ever said a word. No one seemed to notice that they were getting rapid anti-Christian literature.

Melissa: Great story, George.

<Anne>: I don't really buy the business about us being as hard to herd as cats. We simply don't have a unifying statement that draws us together. We agree about what we don't believe, but what DO we hold in common?

Massimo: Anne, as you can surmise from this discussion, there is quite a bit that freethinkers disagree about...

<Anne>: How about Sagan's statement that "We are the universe's way of understanding itself"? Is that a nonsensical statement? Doesn't it have a kind of emotional power?

Massimo: Anne, I think Sagan's statement was nonsensical. The universe does have or need a self, nor a way to understand it. It sounds poetical, however.

scott k: anne: you have a good point, there must be more than 2 kinds of intelligent propositions (beyond logical tautologies or empirical claims).

<Anne>: Massimo, an individual brain neuron might say the same thing. If we're part of the universe, then we're the part that wonders what we (and thus the universe) is.

George Smith: Anne, I agree with you on this. I don't think atheism per se is much a unifying theme, certainly not enough to hold a large movement together.

Sharron & Phil: Seems that since "atheist" simply means "without theism," it's hard to rally people around *anything* that's merely "a-(fill in the blank)"

Massimo: Anne, but individual neurons *don't* think (thinking is an emergent property of zillions of neurons), and we are *not* the universe, only a tiny part of it.

<Anne>: If only someone could write a script with the emotional power of "A Space Odyssey" but without the god-like aliens.

Massimo: Agree on that one!

George Smith: Libertarians, liberals, and Marxists may all be atheists, but that isn't much of a basis to get them to work together.

<Anne>: Massimo, an individual neuron is not the person -- only a tiny part of it.

Massimo: Anne, were you suggesting that the universe might have a consciousness originating as an emergent property of individual beings populating it? Attractive idea, but these beings - unlike neurons - are not physically connected.

<Anne>: Massimo, yes they are. All that brain neurons do is talk to each other. The emergent result is consciousness. Humans talking to each other are like a pool of consciousness. We're an isolated network on earth but the combined chatter of humans has caused history as we know it.

Colleen: Maybe one way to determine a unifying theme of atheists is to ask them what they would be doing if everyone were atheist and we were happy with the educational system.

Sharron & Phil: Skeptics still wouldn't be satisfied, Colleen.

Melissa: Colleen, what a great question! I bet we'd say 30 different things just within RET membership. For me, environmental stuff I guess.

Massimo: Melissa, but even environmentalism is a political cause. I think freethinkers would only agree on two things: a) the need for a society were critical thinking and tolerance of religious ideas are promoted; and b) that non-believers not be discriminated against in any way.

George Smith: It seems to me that the volume of freethought literature has increased considerably in recent years. When I first published "Atheism: The Case Against God" in 1974, very little was being published.

Colleen: I love that purple book and have in prominently displayed on my bookcase at eye level.

George Smith: I have a question: How many people here come from religious backgrounds?

Melissa: George, are you active in libertarian organization(s)?

scott k: George: I grew up christian (methodist).

Melissa: I was Church of Christ raised.

Sharron & Phil: Phil grew up in the Church of Christ and Sharron in the Free-Will Baptist Church

scott k: George: although, now I am neither theist nor atheist. I am still trying to figure out what people are talking about. I am a semanticist. ;)

Massimo: I grew up a mild Catholic (with the Pope next door...)

<Anne>: I grew up a joyful and enthusiastic Catholic and have never quite forgiven God for not existing.

Colleen: My parents awoke every Sunday morning with hangovers and made us walk to church by ouselves.

Andy: I was brought up atheist, told to ask why god didn't need a creator if the universe does.

George Smith: It would seem that growing up religious is not necessarily an impediment to becoming a freethinker, since many of us (myself included) come from religious backgrounds.

Sharron & Phil: It's difficult to escape though, George.

scott k: smith: once the trinity fails to make any sense and so too original sin, there is nothing much left other than compassion, love, & knowledge. I believe a different trinity!

Massimo: George, I like your optimism, but don't forget that it took most of us a lot of pain and searching to get rid of religion. And most people live unhappy lives because they haven't managed to quit. It's like saying that since some people have been able to quit smoking, it's OK to promote cigarettes with children.

<Anne>: Agreed Massimo. Religion comes from the Latin word 'religare' which means to bind and religious education binds the minds of some people the same way the Chinese used to bind the feet of little girls.

George Smith: Massimo, yes, I see your point. I was being somewhat tongue in cheek. Although it does seem that some of the most active atheists (like Dan Barker) hail from religious backgrounds. People I know who were raised as atheists are often indifferent about the subject.

George Smith: Someone needs to reprint some of the atheist classics, like Holbach's "System of Nature." That book has not been reprinted (to my knowledge) since the 19th century.

Melissa: They need to be digitized and turned into free e-book downloads.

George Smith: Melissa, I have a tough time reading books on a computer screen. Short pieces, yes, but not an entire book. I guess I'm old fashioned that way.

George Smith: Massimo, I think one of the major tasks is to remove the moral stigma that many people attach to labels like "atheism."

Massimo: George, you are right about the roots of activism. You have to be hurt badly before you react. In my case, I was completely minding my own business until I came to Tennessee and they talked about passing an anti-evolution law (I teach evolution at the University).

<Anne>: I think that secular humanism must promote some kind of joyful message regarding our purpose. Not a purpose handed down on high, but a purpose that humanity can choose.

Massimo: On the moral stigma of atheism. Yes, that's why the work of philosophers such as Singer is so important. It's a positive, humane, and entirely secular ethics.

scott k: massimo: if the 'anti-evolution' meme is fit, why oppose it? ;)

George Smith: Massimo, may we expect you to be the target of yet another "monkey trial"?

Massimo: I'd love to be another Scopes, but hopefully that won't happen... ;-) In that sense, times have definitely changed for the better since 1925. Though with Georgy W...

scott k: a post-modern Scopes trial. Think of the book deals! lol

<Anne>: Evolution is seen as a degrading lineage. Why can't it be presented as a marvelous and exalting story?

Carl Ledendecker: Yes Anne, I agree. A positive approach is the key.

George Smith: Massimo, I've just signed another contract with Prometheus for a book titled "Happiness in a Godless World." A lot of it will deal with the history of secular vs. religious ethics.

Massimo: George, glad to hear about the book! Wonderful idea. Though it should be published by a major outlet such as Norton, instead of good 'ol Prometheus.

George Smith: Massimo, that would be preferable, but my lack of academic credentials is a hindrance there. Plus Prometheus will let me write whatever I please, so long as I put a word like "God" or "atheism" somewhere in the tile. Massimo, plus I have this damn "option" clause in my contracts, which gives Prometheus the right of first refusal. Maybe I should propose a book I know they will reject in order to get out of it.

Massimo: George, that's what I did with Johns Hopkins U-Press, and it worked.

scott k: George: haha...is that uppercase God?

<Anne>: I loved Carl Sagan because, as his biographer said, he 're-enchanted the universe'. We have to keep re-enchanting. No point in destroying people's dreams if you're not prepared to offer a palatable alternative.

scott k: anne: maybe the genomics era will give evolution new wings.

Massimo: Anne, very true. The problem is that it's difficult to have an alternative as palatable as eternal bliss in the eyes of an all-powerful father.

<Anne>: Scott, yes, if it doesn't scare the pants of everyone first.

scott k: anne: well, cloning will scare them first.

Carl Ledendecker: Massimo: Why is it hard to have something better than a controlling father in the sky?

Massimo: Carl, because of the horrors that a conscious mind feels at facing annihilation. We can offer a better life now, they can offer the (illusion of) eternity.

George Smith: scott, no matter. I was going to call this latest book, "Yet Another Book on Atheism," but I didn't think they would go for that.

scott k: haha...

scott k: Massimo: well, I wasn't horrified before my birth, why suffer the thought of death?

George Smith: Scott, that's the good old argument of Epicurus.

scott k: GhS: yea? I'll give credit next time.

George Smith: Scott, do you find that argument to be an effective remedy against the fear of death?

George Smith: A historian friend of mine (from SUNY) once asked if I would every publish a book that didn't have the word "atheism" in the title. I told him that if I ever published an autobiography, I would have to call it "Atheism and Me."

<Anne>: Massimo, when we were children, our father was our great controlling power. But when we grew up we found other points of reference. We're in collective adolescence now and we need to find a replacement.

Carl Ledendecker: Yes, no longer the children of god, but mature adults.

Massimo: Scott, Anne, I completely agree. The question is what is the best way to help humanity "grow up" beyond the Santa stage.

<Anne>: Note how badly Epicureanism fared in the freemarket of ideas in ancient Rome. Christianity beat it hands down.

Sharron & Phil: ... still think people look for "certainty" and "authority".

George Smith: Anne, well as I recall Xianity has the assistance of Constantine, Theodosius, and other emperors.

Massimo: George, yes Christianity had some emperors' help. But I just finished reading the classic "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" and it seems clear that Christianity was accepted by the emperors when it had already spread enough that it was seen as inevitable.

George Smith: Massimo, that's a great book. Gibbon's chapter on Commodus (of recent "Gladiator fame) is a classic, though it's nothing like the movie.

Massimo: Frankly, I'm still terrified of annihilation. But since I know there is no alternative, I also think there is no point in me wasting my life thinking about it.

scott k: Massimo: indeed, it is a waste of time to think about it. I thought I was going to die (once) and was vaguely aware of it. Shock, I suppose.

George Smith: I have a short discussion of death (and the Epicurean remedy) in the last section of "Why Atheism?" I plan to discuss it at greater length in the next book.

<Anne>: I think the next "messiah" will be the person who creates an inspiring 'meme' that is consistent with scientific knowledge and yet inspires people the way religion does.

scott k: GhS: I am interested in death. But, I doubt anything interesting will happen. So, I live! I don't suppose Epicurus' argument is real strong. For me, everything changed when I became conscious. Something emerged.

George Smith: Massimo, the atheist (and former Jesuit) Joseph McCabe once called death "the final fact." That about sums it up.

Sharron & Phil: ... oh yes - another perk of Christianity is life *after* death

<Anne>: Communism and ancient Judaism did not promise an afterlife and yet drew enthusiastic converts nevertheless. I don't think that this hinges on fear of death.

<Anne>: Christianity had the energy and enthusiasm that the others lacked. Does secular humanism have the energy? Not yet.

Massimo: Secular humanism, contrary to Christianity or communism, is not really an ideology. People rally around ideologies that promise big rewards, not around people who preach critical thinking and hard decisions.

Carl Ledendecker: This "fear" of death is not a universal cultural phenomena. It is not inevitable.

Secular humanism is very much an ideology.

Massimo: Carl, it may not be inevitable, but I think it is much more biological than cultural.

George Smith: Massimo, I'm generally of the opinion that some of the best freethought works were written in previous centuries. Unfortunately, however, many freethinkers don't bother to read them.

Massimo: Secular humanism is not an ideology, in that its central tenet is the promotion of open discussions and critical thinking. That's the opposite of an ideological commitment.

Carl Ledendecker: Resistance to untimely death is biological, not metaphysical fear.

Massimo: George, I agree on the classical literature. It may be part of our consumeristic society that we don't bother to read what's more than a couple of years old. With the consequence that we have to rewrite a lot of stuff that was written long ago.

<Anne>: Massimo, how about a universal quest? An ideology of developing humankind to its most brilliant potential and seeking to establish networks beyond earth?

Massimo: Anne, sounds good, but I doubt you are going to convince many people. At least, not overni

<Anne>: Massimo, it has to be packaged. We need a marketing firm.

Massimo: Now you're talking!

George Smith: Carl, are you familiar with the fact that, in the same year in which Thomas Szasz was proclaimed "Humanist of the Year," he also refused to sign the Second Humanist Manifesto.

George Smith: Massimo, I know there have been a lot of "new" theistic arguments in recent decades (such as the "fine tuning" argument for design), but IMHO they merely repeat the same basic fallacies that were exposed by Hume, Holbach, and others many years ago. Old wine in new bottles.

Massimo: George, yes, the whole intelligent design movement is nothing more than what Paley proposed, only now they brought it down to the level of dna and quarks

(i.e., on what we now don't understand well, given that the evolution of the eye has been pretty much explained).

<Anne>: Why do intelligent people cling to the religious paradigm so fervently? I say it's because secular humanism does not give them what they need. Religion has the music but not the worlds. Humanism has the words, but no music. It doesn't sing. And people do need a tune.

Sharron & Phil: Anne, don't forget that many of the great ideologies had/have *drawbacks* as well as rallying points - many will be drawn to humanism because of these negative features of the ideologies.

George Smith: Massimo, I still think Flew's "God and Philosophy" is among the best defenses of atheism ever written, but I'm not sure how many modern freethinkers read it, or are even aware of it.

Massimo: George, I just read Flew's classical "Theology and falsification". It was reprinted in a nice little magazine called Philosophy Now (out of England).

George Smith: Massimo, I notice that a lot of freethinkers have become actively involved in debates. That's a very healthy sign. It's when the opposition ignores you entirely that you need to worry, and that' s basically what happened earlier in the 20th century.

Massimo: Yeah, the worst thing that can happen is to be ignored. If they engage you, they are recognizing that you are a force to be reckoned with.

<Anne>: We need a song that will rally people the way "The International" rallied communists. "Arise, ye prisoners of starvation....kind of thing."

Sharron & Phil: Anne, how about, "Arise, ye prisoners of guilt!"

<Anne>: Sharron and Phil, How about "Arise ye prisoners of mind-binding?

Carl Ledendecker: Jerry Reiter of the council for secular humanism is working on the emotional musical aspects which are now lacking.

George Smith: 19th century freethinkers (such as Holyoake, who coined the word "secularism") would sometimes engage in debates that would consume several evenings, and which attracted hundreds of onlookers. Joseph McCabe was so deadly in debates that he couldn't get any takers after a while. He then offered to debate several opponents at the same time; and when this didn't work, he added the proviso that these opponents didn't have to state the subject of the debate in advance. Even so he had trouble finding people who would debate with him.

<Anne>: Such debates are like the fable of the North Wind and the Sun making a bet on who could get the man to take off his coat. The more the Wind blew, the more the man clung to his coat. When the sun shone, he immediately took it off. It's not reason that will attract people. It's emotions based on reason. Must the two be mutually exclusive?

scott k: George, if you were a religious person (hypothetically speaking) would you be more of a reason- or faith-based believer? Would you be a Hobbist (gods are incomprehensible) or a Van Tillian (we can understand god's attributes)?

George Smith: scott, I would probably be a Thomist. I hate Van Til. I think he is very sleazy and I think I would hold this opinion even if I were a Christian.

scott k: GhS: like a grand master chess player? Play a dozen opponents at a time with half his brain tied behind his back?

George Smith: scott, I think Aquinas made about a good a case for Xianity as can possibly be made. I also think Pascal is a very interesting thinker. I don't think is "wager" is correctly understood; in fact, I didn't even view it correctly in my first book.

scott k: hmm

Sharron & Phil: Anne, you keep seeking a rallying cry for humanists. I suspect it will come about slowly. A world without "god" will just seem to be the most *reasonable* approach.

<Anne>: Sharron and Phil: I don't think will rally to a negative. A world without God is a world with...... what?

scott k: Anne: but, why do atheists exist at all? If religious statements are literally nonsense...

scott k: Following Anselm's lead, what would happen to the nonbeliever if she understood the greatest conceivable argument for God? ;)

George Smith: scott, Pascal's wager is essentially an effort to establish the credibility of Christianity. It is not a proof per se. For that Pascal falls back on arguments from prophecy, etc.

Andy: There is a special "hell" for those who can't see that "god" is just an excuse used to avoid the subject.

George Smith: scott, are you familiar with the Ontological Proof for the existence of Santa Claus? It begins, Conceive of a being than which nothing jollier can be conceived.... Schopenhauer called the Ontological Proof a "cunning game with concepts," and he was right.

scott k: GhS: haha...yea, I have.

Sharron & Phil: A world without "god" is a world seeking to understand and simply "to be".

Massimo: A world w/out god is one in which we'll have fewer crusades and arab-israeli conflicts.

George Smith: scott, someone should work that argument out in more detail. It might actually work, given the inner logic of the ontological argument.

scott k: atheism seems more a political position, than epistemic...

Carl Ledendecker: Atheists exist because humans are always seeking good answers to understand their environment.

Massimo: Carl, I agree. Natural selection seems to have put a premium on humans who attempt to understand causality. There are experiments comparing our decision-making process in certain situations with that of rats that show that we try to understand the underlying causes of a phenomenon instead of going simply by observed correlations.

George Smith: scott, atheism is obviously a reactive position, in the sense that it is defined in opposition to a positive belief. If theistic belief were not prevalent and influential, then there wouldn't be much point in stressing atheism at all, any more than we now stress our lack of belief in magic elves.

scott k: or Easter bunnies...

Sharron & Phil: I doubt that atheism is a reactive position for a baby.

George Smith: Sharron, true, but I was thinking of what is sometimes called "critical atheism."

<Anne>: Santa was once a malevolent elf that people left cakes out for so he wouldn't abduct their children. Jehovah was once a night demon. Both have been transformed into benevolent beings. Might not science be similarly transformed?

scott k: Anne: :)

George Smith: Massimo, what single introduction to evolution would you recommend for non-specialists?

Massimo: George, probably Dawkins' "Climbing Mount Improbable", though I'm not personally satisfied with any non-technical book on evolution. Maybe I should write one...

George Smith: Massimo, thanks. What's the basic problem with the literature that is now available?

scott k: I don't find Gould or Dawkins adequate.

<Anne>: Massimo, please do! I found your site when I was debating an Intelligent Designer on a Magazine site and was being bamboozled by the smoke and mirrors. Your site helped me sort it out.

Massimo: Anne, thanks. I just signed a contract with Sinauer to publish a new book on creationism / evolution in which I take the unusual perspective of chastising both sides. I connect creationism with the more general anti-intellectualism of the US, and I criticize scientists and science educators for sloppiness and their own version of fundamentalism. I will also bring up recent findings in neurobiological research about how people learn and change their minds. But it's not going to be an intro to evolution. Perhaps the next one.

scott k: now, Fisher...hmm

Massimo: The problem is that nobody seems to want to write an "evolution 101" for the general public. Either they go too technical (e.g., Futuyma) or they don't actually explain the basics but only focus on cute case, as in Gould.

<Anne>: We need an intro to evolution that stresses the magnificence of it all.

George Smith: Well, my dog is bugging me to go for a walk, so I had better go before he decides to use the floor.

Massimo: Thanks George! We'll post the transcripts soon.


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