I suspect everyone who knows atheists has encountered people who say that atheism does not entail nihilism, because “life has the meaning you give it”. I just want to mention a small point regarding that.
My favorite definition (more a description) of “reality” is:
That which, when you stop believing it, doesn’t go away.
It’s not a complete description, but it’s a pretty good working description, especially in our confused times. Anyway, it’s worth noting that “the meaning you give to life” goes away when you stop believing in it.
The atheist retort that atheism does not entail nihilism thus amounts to:
Life doesn’t have any meaning, but I can pretend that it does.
It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.
To give context:
Herbert Spencer would have been greatly annoyed if any one had called him an imperialist, and therefore it is highly regrettable that nobody did. But he was an imperialist of the lowest type. He popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man.
It’s something I’ve seen various versions of from contemporary atheists. The most common is that the universe is so large that even if God existed he couldn’t possible care what human beings do. Other versions tend to run along the lines that the universe is so big our petty concerns can’t matter.
Chesterton’s point is a very good one—that man never took his importance from his size relative to the world. It reminds me greatly of a quote from C.S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain:
It would be an error to reply that our ancestors were ignorant and therefore held pleasing illusions about nature which the progress of science has since dispelled… even from the beginnings, men must have got the same sense of hostile immensity from a more obvious source. To prehistoric man the neighboring forest must have been infinite enough, and the utterly alien and infest which we have to fetch from the thought of cosmic rays and cooling suns, came snuffing and howling nightly to his very doors… It is mere nonsense to put pain among the discoveries of science. Lay down this book and reflect for five minutes on the fact that all the great religions were first preached, and long practiced, in a world without chloroform.
Of course, few atheists will put the idea this baldly—atheists rarely state any of their ideas without dressing them up a bit, or simply failing to consider how they relate to their other ideas, in my experience—but that one meets this sort of thing at all is very curious. One of the problems which some atheists seem to have in relating to older ideas is that they can’t relate to older peoples.
To the degree that there are solutions to this, I suspect that they are largely going to be narrative. The modern narrative is one of being utterly cut off from our ancestors. And yet we’re also seeing counter-narratives emerging; the revival of older traditions, the preference for older ways of doing things. It’s not material whether the putatively older ways of doing things are in fact accurate to how they used to be done, what matters to this purpose is whether they are believed to be in continuity. When they are—when people believe themselves to be in continuity with their ancestors—that’s when they’ll stop seeing their ancestors as aliens and see them as human, instead.
One of the questions which comes up in discussions of morality is whether you can get an “ought” from an “is”. This is relevant primarily to discussions of atheism, since to the atheist everything is a brute fact, i.e. an “is” which is not directed towards anything, and therefore an atheist cannot get any “oughts” out of their description of what is. Or in simpler language, if God is dead then all things are permitted. (Note for the unpoetic: by “God is dead” we mean “there is no God”.)
There are two reasons why if God is dead all things are permitted:
If God is dead, who is there to forbid anything?
If God is dead, then there is no ultimate good because all is change and therefore nothing has any lasting reality.
If you argue this sort of stuff with atheists long enough, somewhere along the line while you’re explaining natural ends (telos) and natural morality, you may come by accident to a very interesting point which the atheist will bring up without realizing it. It often goes something like this:
OK, suppose that what God says is actually the only way to be eternally happy. Why should you be eternally happy? Why shouldn’t you do what you want even though it makes you unhappy?
This question sheds some very interesting light on hell, and consequently on what we mean by morality. Our understanding of morality tends to be like what Saint Augustine said of our understanding of time:
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.
Somehow or other atheists tend to assume that ought means something that you have to do, regardless of what you want to do. It’s very tempting to assume that this is a holdover from childhood where ought meant that their parents would make them do it whether or not they wanted to. It’s tempting because it’s probably the case and because that’s not an adult understanding of ought. And it’s not because ultimately we can’t be forced to be good. (Or if this raises your hackles because I’m “placing limits on God”, then just take it as meaning that in any event we won’t be forced to be good.)
Hell is a real possibility. Or in other words, it is possible to see two options and knowingly pick the worse option.
What we actually mean by saying that we ought to do something is that the thing is directed towards the good. And we can clarify this if we bring in a bit of Thomistic moral philosophy: being is what is good. Or as the scholastic phrase goes, good is convertible with being. But being, within creation, is largely a composite entity. A statue is not just one thing, but many things (atoms, molecules, etc.) which, in being ordered toward the same end, are also one thing which is greater than their parts.
And you can see a symphony of ordering to a greater being, in a human being. Atoms are ordered into proteins (and many other things like lipids, etc), which are ordered into cells, which are ordered into organs, which are ordered into human beings. But human beings are not at the top of the hierarchy of being, for we are also ordered into community with other created things. (Please note: being part of a greater whole does not rob the individual of his inherent dignity; the infinite goodness of God means that creation is not a competition. Also note that God so exceeds all of creation that He is not in the hierarchy of being, but merely pointed to by it.)
And so we come to the real meaning of ought. To say that we ought to do something is to say that the thing is ordered towards the maximum being which is given to us. But we need not choose being; we can instead choose non-being. The great lie which the modern project (and, perhaps not coincidentally, Satan) tells us is that there is some other being available to us besides what was given to us by God. That we can make ourselves; that we can give ourselves what we haven’t got. And, not at all coincidentally, are the things which we ought not to do—that is, those things are not ordered toward being. They’re just what the atheist says that all of life is—stimulating nerve endings to fool ourselves that we’ve accomplished something.
And yet atheists complain when one says that, according to them, they’re in hell.
Around a quarter century ago, in my early teens, I did online Christian apologetics in various forums (AOL, usenet, etc.). And something I came across was the habit of atheists using bluster—the extremely confident assertion of things that, if pressed, they couldn’t defend.
In my later teens I took a hiatus from apologetics to spend time learning, to better prepare myself. It ended up being a fairly long hiatus, and by the time I was ready to get back to apologetics I was Catholic and now it was called evangelization. And in the great dealing of thinking and reading and so forth that I did in those years, I came to the conclusion that reasoned argument was not what most people needed. Atheism was not so much an intellectual position as it is a mental prison. The atheist is in a tiny, cramped little universe, so much smaller than a human mind. What atheists really need—as Chesterton said of the madman in his masterpiece, Orthodoxy—is not arguments, but air. He needs to come in contact with enough truth that he will realize it can’t fit inside his prison, at which point he will realize that he’s not actually inside of a prison, and leave.
But being an open Catholic online and hanging out with the sort of people I hang out with does bring one into contact with a lot of atheists—though almost all of a few related kinds. And in meeting the same sorts of people I was arguing with 25 years ago, I found that they were still using bluster—making assertions with impressive confidence. But as an adult in my 30s, this was nowhere near as intimidating as it was to me when I was 13. And I found something very interesting when I would respond to bald-faced assertions with contrary bald-faced assertions.
I somewhat naively expected to simply come to a standstill of assertions that would result either in agreeing to disagree or providing space for a real discussion to take place. Instead, the atheists tended to get angry. Very angry. And what was curious was that it was the sort of anger one sees from a dog owner who isn’t any good at dog training when their dog fails to perform on command. It’s the anger of, “you’re not doing what you’re supposed to!”
You’ll see this all over the world, from all sorts of people. Doubtless many atheists have gotten this from irate grandmothers. But they were holding themselves up as rational inquirers. But if you scratch the surface, like with gold leaf, you find out that their rationality is just a coating which is only a few molecules thick.
And I started noticing that this applied in other places, too. The people who scream, “only believe things because of evidence!” get awfully huffy when you ask them for evidence of their honesty. They don’t put it that way, but apparently that, you’re supposed to take on faith.
“Don’t believe things without evidence!”
“OK, do you have any evidence that you’re not a moron?”
Again, their principle apparently comes with a lot of unstated qualifications. In theory, this should be an entirely reasonable question since you’re just asking for evidence. Instead you’ll typically hear about “ad homs” (argumentum ad hominem, i.e. arguing that the man is bad as if that proved his conclusion is false, see here for more), which is rather bizarre since a question cannot be a fallacious argument since it is not any kind of argument.
It’s been rather fascinating to see, since these people have great conviction, but it’s not conviction in their own principles. I still haven’t really found what their conviction is in. (I have my suspicions, and it will vary with the individual, of course. But I haven’t come to any definite conclusions yet.)
But it’s been very interesting to see how little there is behind atheists’ bluster.
Recently my friend Eve Keneinan had a Twitter Thread in which she talked about the problems with defining Atheism as “a lack of belief in God”:
“Lack of belief in God” is a bad definition of atheism, because it is conceptually bad. One way to demonstrate it is conceptually flawed is to note that inanimate objects like bricks or stones would be, on this definition, atheists.
There is a problem she doesn’t mention with this definition, which is that there are no useful sentences which you can construct. In order to have a useful sentence using a word, there has to be something you can predicate of all of the things described by the word. And (ignoring the problem of rocks and krill being caught up in the lack-of-belief definition), there is nothing you can predicate of people who believe God doesn’t exist, people who aren’t sure he exists, babies, the mentally retarded, and people who’ve never heard of the concept. They’re not all tall or short, stupid or intelligent, fat or thin, nor anything else. You can say that they exist, but that’s about it. This disqualifies it as a possible definition by what should be called the “uselessness test”. That said, let’s ignore it for now.
Eve mentioned a possible way of amending this definition to avoid catching up rocks and bricks and such-like as atheists:
It isn’t hard to REPAIR the lack of belief concept, by saying “it is lack of belief in God, in beings capable of forming beliefs.”
That doesn’t include rocks. But it doesn’t include babies either, so you’ll have to SACRIFICE “We are all born atheists” from your discourse.
However, this amended definition still leaves it a completely useless definition for a different reason than the one above (which still applies). Actually, before I even get to that, there’s a problem which needs addressing: it’s under-specified. Specifically, what sort of beliefs must the atheist be capable of forming?
There are different ways of defining “belief”, but since atheists are pretty much all materialists and thus don’t believe in a soul nor an intellect (in the traditional sense), they have to define “belief” as some sort of behavioral relation to the outside world. As such, it is clear that a rat which nibbles on a block of rat chow “believes” that the rat chow is food. So we still have the problem that under this amended definition, most atheists are bacteria and funguses, followed by higher-order life forms like krill and beetles. OK, so let’s grant the atheist the ability to use a theist’s definition of “belief” such that it’s the sort of thing which only human beings have, despite there being absolutely no way for a materialist to do this at all consistently.
We now get to the problem I mentioned about under-specificity. What sort of beliefs must these beings be capable of forming? To give an overly simplistic example to illustrate the point, it is utterly uninteresting that a man whose ability to form beliefs encompasses nothing more than the belief that cucumbers exist does not believe in God. This generalizes to the real point: if a man is for some reason limited in that he’s not capable of forming a belief in God, it is not an interesting property that he doesn’t believe in God. It is uninteresting for the same reason that we don’t count a man who can’t do even 1 pushup as as physically unfit if the reason he can’t do a pushup is because he has no arms. An armless man who can run a sub-6 minute mile is still quite physically fit. And further, his being fit but unable to do pushups tells us nothing about a couch potato with arms who cannot do pushups because he does nothing all day long. In the same way, if a man has a cognitive defect where he cannot form a belief in God he is unfortunate, but he has nothing whatever in common with someone who can form a belief in God but has formed the belief that God does not exist instead.
But really, either way, this definition cannot be applied to anyone given the limits of human knowledge. We have no way of finding out whether a man is capable of forming a belief in God except that he actually forms it. And even if we retreat from that we have no way of knowing that a man is capable of forming beliefs at all (without being him). We can tell us that he does, but I can easily program a computer to say that it forms beliefs, too. Heck, one could easily write on a rock, “I, this rock, can form beliefs”. If one rejects noetic knowledge as most online atheists do and demand evidence from the one making the claim, it is impossible to know whether anyone is an atheist since we can’t know what’s actually going on inside of his head. And this is different from taking his word about whether or not he in fact believes in God, since that presupposes he’s the sort of being which could have a word to give. The amended definition of “atheism” now requires us to find out whether he’s the sort of thing which can give his word before we know whether the definition applies to him.
Of course atheists tend to take the practical solution of demanding that theists merely assume the theistic worldview at all necessary places in order to make sense of what the atheist is saying, but to then reject it wherever it is not necessary for the atheist’s statements to be other than raving gibberish. At some point I think that everyone is tempted to say of online atheism what King Arthur said of Camelot, “No, on second thought, let’s not go there. It is a silly place.”
There’s a curious thing which happens to those who believe that the only real knowledge comes from science: they start to believe that nearly everything—except what they want to reject—is science. Ultimately this should not be shocking, since people who live with a philosophy will invariably change it—gradually—until it is livable.
The people who become Scientismists generally start out extremely impressed with the clear and convincing nature of the proofs offered in the physical sciences. It would be more accurate to say, with the few best proofs in the physical sciences which are offered to them in school—but the distinction isn’t of great import. In practice, most of the impressive results tend to be in the field of Chemistry. It doesn’t hurt that Chemistry is a bit akin to magic, with the astonishing substances it allows people to make, but what it’s really best at is interesting, counter-intuitive predictions. Physics, at least as presented in school, generally allows you to predict simple things like where a thrown object will land or how far a hockey puck will skid on the ice. These aren’t very practical, and the results tend to be intuitive. Chemistry, by contrast, involves the mixing of strange chemicals with the results ranging from anything to nearly nothing to things which glow to explosions to enormously strong plastics.
And Chemistry does this with astonishing accuracy. If you start with clean reagents and mix them in the appropriate steps, you actually do end up with close to the right amount of what you’re supposed to end up with. If you try to run a physics experiment, you’ll probably be nowhere close to correct simply because the experiments are so darn finicky. I still remember when my high school honors physics class broke into groups to run an experiment to calculate acceleration due to gravity at the earth’s surface. The results were scattered between 2.3m/s and 7.3m/s (the correct answer is 9.8m/s).
The problem for our budding Scientismist is that virtually nothing outside of chemistry and (some of) physics is nearly as susceptible to repeatable experiment on demand. Even biology tends to be far less accommodating (though molecular biology is much closer to chemistry in this regard than the rest of biology is). Once you get beyond biology, things get much worse for the Scientismist; by the time you’re at things like morality, economics, crime & punishment, public decency, parenting and so forth, there aren’t any repeatable controlled experiments which you can (ethically) perform. And even if you were willing to perform unethical controlled experiments, the system involved is so complex that the very act of controlling the experiment (say, by raising a child inside of a box) affects the experiment. So what is the Scientismist to do?
What he should do, of course, is realize that Scientism is folly and give it up. The second best thing to do is to realize that (according to his theory) human beings live in near-complete ignorance and so he has nothing to say on any subject other than the hard sciences. What he actually does is to then declare all sorts of obviously non-scientific things to be science, and then accepts them as knowledge. Which is to say, he makes Scientism livable. It’s neither rational nor honest, but it is inevitable. In this great clash of reality with his ideas, something has to give—and the least painful thing to give up is a rigorous criteria for what is and is not science.
I’ve written about lack of belief atheism before, and no doubt will again. (Enough that I can’t pick out a particular post to link to.) To give a one-sentence history: it was a failed attempt to get out of having to argue for atheism by then-atheist Antony Flew in a 1973 essay titled, “The Presumption of Atheism“. It really should be a hint as to what the purpose of this move was when the title is saying that he would really rather win by default than have to support his position.
Stupid as such a request is, laziness is certainly an understandable temptation. What I find curious is the depths to which ordinary atheists who seized on it have sunk. Most, if pushed, will claim that their position is a sub-rational one in which their head is as empty as a rock, and therefore absolutely no rational thoughts can be expected to come from them. Though in a sense as a point in their favor, they turn this tragedy in farce by then saying that it is Christians who are irrational. I’ll give one example. It’s been in my thoughts recently because I’m working on a script for a video about it.
Lack of Belief Atheists (who I will refer to from here on out as LoBsters) love to say that “atheism is just a lack of belief, that’s it, nothing else” but do not consider that the alternatives to God not existing entail more than just the proposition that God exists. For simplicity, I’m going to restrict this to Christianity (it only gets worse for the LoBster when you include other religions). The easiest of which are moral proposition. If Christianity is true, then:
Forgiveness is good
Mercy is good
Love (willing the good of someone for their own sake) is good
Knowledge is worthwhile for its own sake
The truth is worth dying for
Fornication is wrong
Adultery is wrong
Masturbation is wrong
Murder is wrong
The complete list would be much longer, but that’s plenty for now. If someone disagrees with any of these things, they are, by logical necessity, holding Christianity to be false. It’s a simple Modus Ponens.
P → Q
Please bear in mind that affirming Q tells you nothing about P. (Trying to draw positive conclusions about P from Q being true is called the fallacy of affirming the consequent.) Modus Ponens in one of the elementary logical syllogisms which everyone who studies formal logic for even a few days learns. So the only way that a LoBster can legitimately claim to lack a belief in whether Christianity is true is by holding that Christianity is entirely correct in all of the morality which it teaches. Well, that’s not quite true. All that they have to hold is that it might be true in all the morality it teaches. But that itself has implications for how one lives, because if an act might be fine and the upside is that it’s fun, or it might be terribly evil, the better bet is to avoid it. So by and large, such a LoBster would have to live almost as if Christianity is true since he holds that it might be.
They don’t do that, of course, but their only way out is to disclaim all rational thought on the subject, and basically on all subjects. (Except Mathematics, of course, but LoBsters seem to have studied almost no math.) It’s really quite sad. Pray for them.
I’ve lost interest in modern American movies. (Fair warning: I’m going to paint with a very broad brush for simplicity. Keep a grain of salt on hand.) If I’m being brief, I just say that Hollywood is made up of atheists and atheists have no interesting stories to tell. That’s not quite true, though; there’s one (mildly) interesting story atheists can tell, and it’s the only story they’ve been telling for decades now.
This is not to say that movies all have the same plots in the details; it’s a bit like how pop songs have different words but all use the same four cords:
The analogy breaks down because pop songs can be about anything, even about good subjects. But the basic story which all recent movies are about is the “hero” deciding that he won’t be a villain after all. Not, it should be pointed out, in the sense of overcoming temptation. That was done very well in this star trek scene:
Instead, the modern story is about choosing an identity. The difference is that in the modern story, being the villain is a live option in the sense of being a good option. When a man is tempted, he may do what’s wrong, but he knows that he’s the worse for it. In the modern story, when the man is tempted he doesn’t see the villain as any worse. He just chooses (for no rational reason) to not be the villain.
And when I say that it’s mildly interesting, most of its interest comes not from the story itself but from the story it can feel like: whether a man will resist temptation. Resisting temptation is a religious story, though. At least in the sense of it having religious premises. For there to be a real story about whether a man will resist temptation, there must be good and evil, and there must be free will. You don’t have any of those things in a materialist universe. (Some will call it a naturalist universe. Quibbling over terms that mean the same thing is a waste of time.)
But if one is telling stories within a religious framework—and especially within a Christian framework—far more types of stories become possible. With real virtues available, it becomes possible to tell stories about choosing between virtues. The meson (balance between competing virtues) of Aristotle can be an excellent basis for a story. There are also stories of redemption. It’s true that modern atheistic stories may have what is called the heel-face turn, but by and large that’s just a switching of sides. True redemption involves things like contrition (which is the hatred of the evil done, not anguish over one’s current place in society). They involve things like performing restitution. And they involve things like trying to help others to turn away from evil. People who have truly repented tend to be the most evangelical, not the most mopey. Basically, those who have been given much more than they deserve want to share it.
I do think that there’s another culprit behind the bland homogeneity of modern screenwriting: modern education is primarily organized around training people to be good factory workers in a socialist utopia (thank you, John Dewey). Screenwriters have almost never read any of the classic stories of western literature; they’re familiar primarily with TV and movies. And the result seems to be a kind of literary inbreeding. The family nose is getting ever more pronounced, even as the family lungs are getting ever weaker and more wheezy.
As I’ve described more than a few times, one of the big problems that modern atheists have is that they are hyper-reductionists. They will not admit that composite entities are real. If a human body is made of atoms, they will not admit that a human being is anything more than atoms. They will of course use the word “human being” in the same way that normal people do, but they will balk at any implication of the word which they don’t like. Consistency is not their strong point.
And indeed consistency is so little their strong point that they are never hyper-reductionists elsewhere. I once joked about proposing alinguism (that language doesn’t exist, only words do). It would be even more fun, I think, to troll atheists with the proposal that Science doesn’t exist. Scientists do, of course, but not science. One could go all the way, asking where it is, how much it weighs, etc. I think the most fun would be to ask for a peer-reviewed scientific paper which describes the repeatable experiment that shows that science exists.
There isn’t really a point in this, because (in my experience) atheists never recognize their reasoning applied to anything but what they apply it to. I am coming to believe that the reason for this is that their reasoning is not in fact an attempt to understand the world. If it were, they would be interested in trying to apply it to the world. Instead, it’s mostly an attempt to get out of applying their putative beliefs to the world. That’s because their beliefs are primarily cultural. Belief is part of what unites people, and most atheists’ beliefs are held in that way—as a form of tribal identification. You can see some people hold beliefs about the best football team in a similar sort of way. It’s not that they’ve really analyzed all of the football teams in the league(s?), but that loudly espousing one team as being the best has a unitive function amongst fans. You see a similar sort of thing in religious observance, where many people like the community more than they care about the actual religion. In a possibly ironic way, this applies as much to irreligion as to religion.
And in consequence, much of what the irreligious say is not an attempt to think, but an attempt to avoid thinking. Like with those who are religious for purely social reasons, it’s not an admirable thing for a human being to do.
Or here’s the script. Bear in mind that was written to be read aloud by me. It wasn’t written to be read by a general audience, though it should be generally readable.
Having looked at each of the Four Horsemen individually—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett—I wanted to turn my attention to them as a group. There are a number of interesting questions to ask about this group, and since it is basically defunct, but we’re still close to it historically, the answers don’t seem that hard to come by.
The first question I had was: how did these four men come to be called The Four Horsemen. I’ve heard it said that many second-string atheists aspired to be numbered among the Four Horsemen—P. Z. Myers, Lawrence Krauss, Jerry Coyne, Richard Carrier, and others—which suggests the question: what was the original selection criteria? Dawkins and Hitchens are obvious enough, and Sam Harris isn’t too hard to see, but Daniel Dennett is something of a mystery. He doesn’t really seem to be the same league as the rest—whether you’re talking about charisma or popularity. So I did a little digging, and the answer surprised me, though it shouldn’t have.
In 2006, after the success of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins founded The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Interestingly, The God Delusion was published on the second day of October in that year, so he didn’t wait long to consider it enough of a success. In late September of 2007, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science—I love how pretentious that name is—convened a meeting of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennet which was recorded and released on a DVD titled, “Discussions with Richard Dawkins, Episode 1: The Four Horsemen”. So, in effect, they gave that title to themselves, which I find very fitting.
Though, in strict accuracy, it is possible that it was the producer of the DVD who came up with the title. His name is Josh Timonen. He was, incidentally, also the director, editor, and cinematographer of the DVD. According to IMDB his other credits are performer/writer for the soundtracks of Hallowed Ground and Safe Harbor, and he did visual effects—specifically the main title designs—for Carjacked, Never Cry Werewolf, and Hallowed Ground. Also interesting is that there is no episode 2 of “Discussions with Richard Dawkins,” though apparently Timonen did film a public discussion with Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss in 2009. I’m guessing that it’s not on Timonen’s IMDB credits because the DVD does not appear to have been published; the recording is available in twelve parts on the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science website, which still says that it will soon be released on DVD along with other discussions with Richard Dawkins. Also, the video continually loads without ever playing. Well, once again we see that only God accomplishes all things according to the intentions of his will; the rest of us only grope around in the dark largely doing what we don’t mean to do and not doing what we do mean to do.
So, our two possibilities for the origin of the name is that the group gave it to themselves or that a marketer employed by Richard Dawkins came up with the name to sell DVDs. Both possibilities are extremely fitting for a group of New Atheists; atheists rarely do anything glorious because, after all, what is glory? Money, everyone over the age of fifteen knows, is far more directly measurable. And indeed, the new atheists stand for nothing if they don’t stand for only believing in the directly measurable.
Also somewhat ironically, according to Wikipedia, which cites a 2012 video presented by the Australian Atheist Alliance—sorry, the Atheist Foundation of Australia—with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris, and Ayan Hirsi Ali, Ali was invited to the 2007 conversation with Dawkins but had to cancel at the last moment. Had she been able to make it, it’s likely we’d never have had the four horsemen at all, both because “horsepersons” doesn’t scan well and because “the five horsepersons” wouldn’t really be a recognizable reference. They’d have had to have been called, “half the plagues” or something like that.
This doesn’t fully explain the four horsemen, though. Why were these particular people invited rather than others? I don’t mean in the proximal sense of exactly what were the precise criteria used in the decision, but rather why were the conditions such that the decision was made the way it was? Dawkins of course was obvious, since it was his foundation which convened the discussion, but the other three raise questions.
The most obvious answer seems to be book sales. The Four Horsemen conversation took place on the thirtieth day of September in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2007; Christopher Hitchens’s book God is Not Great was published in May of 2007. Dennet’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon was published in February of 2006. Sam Harris had two best sellers, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason in 2004 and Letters to a Christian Nation in 2006. Ayan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography, Infidel, was also published in 2006. The other aspirants to horsemanship I mentioned before didn’t publish anything relevant until after the fateful conversation which crowned the four men it did.
But this only pushes the question back a little; there have been atheists writing books about atheism for over a hundred years. Why did these men become popular in the time period they did? A few pages of The God Delusion are sufficient to prove it wasn’t for the quality of their thinking or writing.
One interesting answer is giving by The Distributist in his video on why he isn’t a New Atheist any more:
[CLIP<8:23-8:43>: And you see here how the new atheist narrative really rescued the optimism and the idea of the end of history that was popular in the 90s from a lot of events that I think should have caused a much deeper cultural consideration of that optimism.]
He develops his point in some depth and I recommend watching his video in full; this clip doesn’t do it justice. But as much as he makes a very good case, I take a somewhat different view, though I think a compatible one.
As I mentioned, atheism has been on the rise in the west for a long time; in the early 1900s G.K. Chesterton talked about the absurd pretence that then-modern England was still Christian. Both Freudianism and Marxism are doctrinally atheistic, and both were popular for quite some time—Marxism is still popular—despite being thoroughly discredited over and over again. But there is a facet of Christianity which, outside of Marxist hellholes, tends to let atheists get along with Christians, which is that Christianity recognizes a distinction between the natural and the supernatural. Edward Feser goes into this in depth in an essay called, “Liberalism and Islam” where he explains them as opposite Christian heresies, where liberalism denies the supernatural and Islam denies the natural. It’s an interesting essay where he argues that this makes them essentially invisible to each other, especially Islam to liberalism, but that’s not my concern here. More to the point is that Islam does not have any sort of mode of co-existence with atheists in the sense that it doesn’t have any secular principles an atheist could agree with for their own reasons.
As the Distributist rightly points out, the secular west became significantly aware of Islam on September 11, 2001 and was more than a little bewildered by it. This could itself be the subject of an entire video, so suffice it for the moment to point out that people who had never thought about the supernatural had no idea of what to do with a religion that didn’t think much about the natural. And you need to know something about an idea to argue against it, which because of an accident of geography, UV intensity in sunlight, and the pigment animals use to protect themselves from UV radiation, secularists were in a bad position to do. And I think this is where the New Atheists got much of their popularity from. People who could not reject Islam specifically had to, instead, reject it generally.
At the same time, I think that the Distributist is right that dashed utopian hopes make people long for an alternative utopian promise, and the New Atheism did tend to have a sort of promise of scientific utopianism. For example, Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity is Near, came out in 2006, in the thick of things. Yet at the same time the New Atheists were remarkably light on actual utopian promises; they tended to concentrate on the implied utopianism of identifying a major problem. It’s all too easy for people to confuse that with having a solution.
There are, I think, other, longer-term factors which also come into play. The New Atheism movement came on the scene as the Internet was revolutionizing culture and bringing people into closer contact with strangers than they ever had been before; the same is broadly true of college, which due to explosions in student debt had been mixing people far more than they had in previous decades. At the same time there’s a heavy marxist strain of thinking—if you can call it that—which is popular in universities. And yet proper Marxism can exist in few places besides universities, in the modern west, especially so soon after the fall of the soviet union. Communism’s legacy of death and misery was too well known in the 1990s and early 2000s for it to be respectable anywhere else. Freudianism was old and largely the butt of jokes—such as people blaming all their problems on how they were potty-trained. There was no vital atheist movement. And that vitality is very important, because we live in a world which is dying. Death lurks around every corner, and indeed every corner is itself withering and decaying. Even on a basic biological level we are heterotrophs. We don’t make our own food, even in the limited sense in which plants make their own food. And even they are only converting the energy of spent star-fuel into food for themselves. The whole world longs for a source of life which is not running out, but within the world we have to settle for the second-best of finding sources of life which are running out more slowly than we are in order to feed.
The conditions were ripe for Sam Harris and Daniel Dennet to write popular books, so that when Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens added more books to the genre it became, for a time, something growing. And growth always attracts for where there is growth there is nourishment. It’s one reason why our society has grown so fascinated with youth; young people aren’t tired.
Of course the attractiveness of growth only lasts for a while; eventually growth only signifies the swarming of people looking for life to feed off of, rather than people who may have found some source of it themselves. To borrow a metaphor, vultures will circle lions with a fresh kill, and will even follow other vultures flying down to a carcass, but they have to find something once they get there or they will just leave again; vultures don’t tend to follow vultures who are leaving. This is why the saints are so important to the church; by being so profoundly counter-cultural they continually prove that there is a source of life they’ve found even though they’re surrounded by a crowd not nearly as sure of where it is.
Clearly that didn’t happen with the new atheists, and for the most part people have moved on. Christopher Hitchens died, and his tomb is still with us. Daniel Dennett is lecturing neuroscientists that they shouldn’t tell people they don’t have free will. Sam Harris has a podcast, which is a bit like having an AM radio show. And the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has become a subdivision of the Center for Inquiry.
I’m not sure how much longer any of the four horsemen will be remembered; no one remembers any of the atheists G.K. Chesterton publicly argued with a hundred years ago. Except, perhaps, George Bernard Shaw, who’s only remembered as a playwright. Bertrand Russell is only remembered (popularly) because of his wretched tea pot, and while Antony Flew was the world’s most famous atheist in the 1970s, in 2004 he became a deist and it doesn’t seem that anyone remembers who he was any more (he died in 2010). They don’t even know that he was the one who first proposed defining atheism as a psychological state to avoid having to come up with some reason to believe in it.
But whatever the fate of the New Atheists, I think that this appearance of vitality played a key part in the movement’s popularity, and the very fact of its fading only a few years later is key to seeing that. Things which are popular for being popular don’t last more than a few years; once everyone has jumped on the bandwagon they must do something, and if it turns out that they don’t like the music they’ll hop off again. And here’s where I partially disagree with the people who believe that Atheism+ killed the New Atheism.
For those who aren’t familiar, Atheism+ was the somewhat indirect result of what was called elevatorgate; at an atheist convention a man followed Rebecca Watson into an elevator and asked her if she wanted to come to his room for coffee and conversation. She publicly complained about this and it sparked a large conversation within the atheist community about what we might loosely call sexual morality and propriety. We might alternatively summarize it as some atheists realizing that without God to enforce good behavior, society must do it through repressive authority. This didn’t sit well with the atheists who thought that in becoming atheists they had finally thrown off the shackles of conventional morality, and long story short: the atheist community split into the feminists versus the anti-feminists. Atheism+ was created to be the feminist side, though it never went very far and last I checked the only activity consisted of a few people who got to know each other through the forums occasionally talking with each other about what courses they’re taking at school.
It is fairly incontrovertible that New Atheism was different before and after Atheism+, but I think it’s a mistake to think that Atheism+ had much of a causal effect. Just as in 2006 the time had been ripe for the New Atheist movement, by 2012 the time had become ripe for something else, because New Atheism was rotting. Actually, rotting is the wrong metaphor; it turned out that New Atheism was infertile. Once you were a New Atheist there was nothing to do but complain about God. But while supernatural movements can be eternally new since they draw their energy from eternity, natural movements must always grow old. Basically, one can only complain about God so much before getting bored. It is true that New Atheism did supply an enemy to continually fight, but one need only watch the recruiting video for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science titled, “if you are one of us, be one of us” to see how toothless this enemy is. People who don’t believe in ghosts can only be so frightened of the ghost of Jerry Falwell. At some point one has to accept that the scopes monkey trial happened in 1925; it is history, not prophecy.
Something with more substance needed to be found, and in particular something winnable—you have to be an idiot to believe religion can be eradicated in our lifetime—but equally importantly something not yet won. Refighting old fights is safe but unexciting. This, I think, is the best explanation for the bifurcation of New Atheism into feminism and anti-feminism. A civil war satisfies both criteria rather well. But as of the time of this video, which is mid 2017, it seems that the feminist/anti-feminist civil war is itself winding down. It’s too early to write a history of it; looks are often deceiving and wars often have lulls in them before surges in violence; even metaphorical wars with metaphorical violence. But it is interesting to speculate what will happen next.
Certainly the atomizing tendency of modern technology is likely to play some role. With several hundred TV channels and several hundred thousand youtube channels, the ability to find entertainment which suits one very precisely is having an effect on making more people popular, but fewer people very popular. On the other hand people do need community; they must have movements to join. But these two things do not seem necessarily contradictory; it is possible that we will see minor cults of personality largely replace more major movements. You can see precedent for this in the church hopping which evangelicals are famous for; it’s common for people to feel a lack where they are, go looking, find a new church they fall in love with—the feeling of infatuation and novelty usually being described as “feeling the holy spirit”—stay there for a while but then acclimate and return to feeling normal, at which point they have to go looking for a new church again. (It’s a far less harmful version of what some people do with husbands or wives.) I see no reason this couldn’t happen with minor cults of personality around youtube personalities, effectively depopulating larger movements.
There are of course still some elements of traditional morality which are yet to be overturned; polygamy and incest are not yet legal in the west and at some point atheists will notice that their arguments in favor of every other overthrow of traditional morality work here too. There are people who long for a race war since they have nothing else to fight about and this could have a certain appeal to some atheists; after all, evolution could be turning the races into different species. Sure, that’s got no scientific basis, but being on the wrong side of science rarely seems to bother atheists.
Oh well, as has been said, of all things the future is the most difficult to predict. Whatever does happen, though, it is very likely to be governed by the two big problems atheists can’t get rid of: it’s not good for man to be alone, and without God, they have no intrinsic reason to get together.
Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.
I’m currently reading the book Snapping, which was recommended to me by Max Kolbe of the Escaping Atheism Project when I had put our a request for recommendations on books about cults. It’s interesting, so far, though I’ve yet to get to the really good part (I’ve only just gotten to chapter 5), but I encountered an interesting point I’d like to discuss in more detail than it appears here:
The first steps in that direction were taken by the poets and writers of the Beat Generation, who set off to mine the rich spiritual lodes of the East.
Those rich spiritual lodes weren’t really all that rich, as people eventually discovered. Protestantism is often pretty dry, though even it isn’t monolithic, but Catholicism has a rich mystical tradition which would not have been overly hard to tap into for the writers of the Beat Generation. And I submit that one of the major reasons why they didn’t is that they knew where Catholic mysticism ended up. It ended up in Catholicism.
The whole reason why Buddhism and Hinduism and various other eastern practices seemed to be so rich with potential is that no one in the west knew where those practices end up. But of course they end up in Buddhism or Hinduism; if the Indians are not all in constant bliss, which they obviously aren’t, there’s no particular reason to believe that borrowing their practices would lead to constant bliss.
This is a surprisingly common mistake—it didn’t work for him, maybe it will work for me! Usually, I think, the result of a salesman’s winning smile coupled with a hefty does of desperation.
This is just some preliminary thoughts about online cults—by which I mean purely online versions of cults like those of Jim Jones, Manson, or Moonie cults. (This is related to my post In What Ways is Atheism a Cult?) What actually defines a cult is a very thorny topic; in many cases the easiest way to define a dangerous cult (as opposed to a good religion) is simply by being wrong. Which isn’t very helpful; so I was sketching out a list of possible attributes common to most dangerous cults:
1. The meaning of life is found by being a cult member, exclusively
2. Thinking is discouraged
3. Dry runs with suicide pills
4. Traditional morals, especially sexual ones, are relaxed, not in service of a stricter law, but in service of the cult itself
4.a. Traditional morals are relaxed just for fun
5. Cult members have a powerful self-assurance vastly in excess of anything they can support
6. Heavy [drug use / sleep deprivation / fasting / etc] to reduce a member’s sense of reality
7. The leader is more than just a man (often divine in the sense of having special knowledge of divine things such that he’s more important than other men)
To some degree this list (which I emphasize is still just a sketch) is avoiding those aspects of cults which require physical proximity, such as:
A. Everything living together on a communal property / the leader’s property
B. The leader gets to have sex with most/all of the female cult members
C. Rigorous enforcement through physical abuse
D. Everyone gets a suicide pill
I’m actually having trouble thinking of many items to go on the second list, though that could just be exhaustion from little children waking me up in the middle of the night several nights running. But it does suggest that the most recognizable events related to cults may not be that integral.
And in fact there is a curious relationship possible to the virality of viruses (i.e. how destructive they are): it could be that the more of the proximity-requiring traits that a cult has, the shorter-lived it is since it tends to burn through members. Many of the proximity-requiring rates above are self-destructive rather than self-reinforcing.
Anyway, this is just some very preliminary thinking-out-loud on the subject, all of it subject to change without notice. 🙂
This post will require a little backstory. The “short short” version is that a friend of mine appeared in silhouette on a video of mine explaining why he wouldn’t be joining me in doing a response video to Deconverted Man’s video about me, and Deconverted Man &co thought I was faking my friend’s existence. (Skip down to “Analysis” after Deconverted Man’s video if you don’t want to see the specifics.) Here’s the video, if you’re curious:
A few of Deconverted Man’s followers (or people I believe to be his followers) showed up in the comments of that video, claiming that my friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) is really just me. This one from “Show-Me-Skeptic”:
I’m pretty sure the shadow man is the channel host. I find it inhumanly disgusting that the whole reason the “friend” chickened out is that Deconverted Man has a slight speech impediment. One that the “friend” says indicates special needs. Then the host goes on to completely straw man DM’s response, and flat out LIES about “12 valid proofs for god.” The host is too cowardly to face DM, and has to resort to gutter apologetics to cower out of a real debate.
(As a side-note, my friend mentioned several reasons that Deconverted Man reminds him of the special-needs people he used to work with and Deconverted Man’s speech impediment was not one of them.) “Username” said:
Missing The Mark You realize we can all tell your “friend” is you right? The way you take a breath and smack your lips is very distinct and noticible
Finally, “William McIntyre” said:
you went through a lot of trouble to hide in the dark so no one can see you and used a voice changer so that no one can know your voice and for what? No one cares if you lied about haveing a friend.
Actually that last one might have been posted after Deconverted Man’s video. Which said, in response to my friend’s portion of the video (in the person of a puppet):
This is deconverted man’s friend and I don’t wanna do this video either, because having both of us in the same room at the same time would be hard. We’re different people though, totally. Just trust me on this.
Btw, If you want to view Deconverted Man’s video, here it is:
And in the comments to this video “Hector Defendi” added:
Finally… His friend is Him . There is NO friend. He threw on a wig, and turned off the lights! (I have Photoshop) What a fucking LIAR!
There’s something deeply impressive about these “skeptics” leaping to such a strange conclusion in the face of evidence to the contrary. I re-watched the portion where my friend spoke and not only do we sound very different, we look very different in outline. He’s got long, flowing hair while my hair is quite short. Yes, this is funny that they’ve spun what one might call a “conspiracy of one” theory, but I think it’s actually quite psychologically interesting, because presumably this same sort of “thinking” gets applied to their rejection of faith.
As backstory, this friend of mine is an old college friend. We’ve known each other for over 15 years. He was a groomsman at my wedding. Unfortunately we live in different states and since I have small children while he has none, he tends to visit me approximately once a year, though that hasn’t worked out every year. And that’s what happened. Originally I only meant to push off the response to Deconverted Man’s video by a few months because it would have been a lot of fun to make fun of Deconverted Man’s recycled atheist tropes together. Then my friend saw Deconverted Man’s debate challenge and his really weird response video (filmed from the nose up) and said he thought Deconverted Man had a developmental disability like autism. I disagreed, saying (as I believed and still believe) that it’s just an odd shtick. But since I couldn’t prove my point, I actually went to Deconverted Man in the comments of either his video or mine—I forget—and asked him to confirm that he is not autistic. He refused to confirm or deny it, and said that we shouldn’t give him any special consideration. Finally my friend visited a few weeks ago, and I tried to talk him into doing the video but he opted out, giving the explanation above.
Deconverted Man was never told the specifics of how long I’ve known my friend, but he certainly knew about me trying to get him (Deconverted Man) to confirm that he is in fact neurotypical and that (I said) my friend pulled out because (in part) he (Deconverted Man) wouldn’t confirm that.
Given all this, Deconverted Man’s explanation for my friend’s explanation in my video is that I made up my friend to somehow justify why it took me so long to put out a video in which I said that Deconverted Man’s video missed the point of mine but had the minorly redeeming feature that he did understand how to use reason in a very minor case (buying clothes) and should work on building that up into being more generally reasonable. Oh, and that he completely misunderstands what special pleading is.
This paints a very curious picture of his view of human psychology as well as his approach to interpreting evidence. My story is out of the ordinary, but unusual things happen all the time and moreover people do often have friends and plans do often fall through. Furthermore, eventually making a response to a video after a year could more easily be explained by just saying, “OK, I’ve put this off long time, time to finally get it done so I can forget about it.”
If any sort of explanation was needed at all. My YouTube channel is hardly about current events; I did a video on the Richard Dawkins Foundation For Reason and Science’s recruiting video If You Are One of Us, Be One of Us when that video was more than a year old. Actually, it’s a fun video if you want to watch it:
Anyway, there was no sensible reason for me to pretend to have a friend, and furthermore you can hear his voice clearly and it sounds very different from mine. Yet these skeptics come up with the idea that I’m disguising my voice and wearing a wig in order to put on a rather strange and pointless pantomime. I don’t think it should be a shock that they reject the historical evidence for Christianity, but I do think that this gives some psychological insight into how they go about rejecting it.
I should not that Jordan Peterson has identified as Christian, but in the same interview he said that he’s agnostic as to whether the resurrection happened (i.e. he neither affirms nor denies it), so while my statement in this episode isn’t perfectly accurate, I think it’s essentially accurate from a traditional Christian perspective. At mass every Sunday we say the Nicene Creed. And I think that Jordan Peterson himself would think what I said was fair from the perspective from which I was speaking.
So I saw this recently on Twitter, and I’m in the mood to tear it apart:
The belief that some cosmic Jewish Zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.
This is an entirely incorrect description of orthodox Christianity except for—depending what is meant—the “Jewish” part. Let’s go through it step by step, at least as long as I have the patience for it:
Christianity is a religion, not merely a belief. It is a way of fundamentally orienting one’s life. Christianity has beliefs, for example we Catholics recite many of the core ones every Sunday by saying the Nicene Creed. This isn’t merely nit-picking, because it borders too much on believe-or-burn nonsense. Christianity is about living in accordance with the truth, not merely knowing it.
that some cosmic
This makes it sound like Jesus is some sort of energy being like a marvel comic book character such as Galactus or Eternity or The Living Tribunal. Those are all contingent beings. Nope, wrong.
As long as this means that he was a descendent of Abraham, etc. fine. If it is meant to deny that he was also a Christian, no.
A zombie is a dead body which has be animated by an evil spirit. Or if it’s a scientific zombie it’s a corpse which is walking around because the writers don’t know anything about science and have no idea how viruses/radiation/respiration/muscle activation/etc. work. This has nothing to do with a person who has come back to life.
can make you live forever
Eternal life refers to living to the full in eternity, not to never dying. This is opposed to being in hell—the “in” referring to being in a state, and the “hell” to the state of rejecting God/goodness/truth/beauty—in eternity. Not dying is, depending on what you mean by it (and how you understand the dormition of Mary), reserved for Mary and a few old testament figures. It has no relationship to the Christian faithful.
if you symbolically eat his flesh
The eucharist is not a symbol but in fact the real presence of Christ, and you really eat his flesh and drink his blood. They have the outward form of bread and wine. The Orthodox just say “it’s a mystery” while Catholics explain in somewhat more technical language that the substance of the bread and wine chance while the accidents (such as the atoms which composed the bread and wine) remain. Then we say it’s a mystery. But in both cases, we affirm that this is real and not a symbol, though its reality is not something you can detect with your eyes or tongue.
Prayer is not telepathy. That the one creating all things as they unfold knows everything that is happening has nothing to do with whatever sci-fi you’re thinking of with telepathy.
Nothing in Christianity depends on what you say to Jesus. This comes back to the first point; Christianity is about action. The content of faith is works; it is not everyone who says “Lord Lord” but the one who does the will of the father, etc. We accept the salvation which God freely gave to us out of his generosity by living in according with that salvation, and reject it by living as if it is not true. This is like any other gift; if someone gives you $20 for your birthday, you accept the gift by spending the money, and reject it by never spending the money.
you accept him as your master
Partially this is wrong because of the above; it’s not any pledge of allegiance that saves, but rather the living out of the acceptance of salvation. Further, this is not accepting a master in an earthly sense where one is property to another’s benefit, but rather living in according with the one who made us and therefore being ourselves to the maximum extent possible given the nature he gave us.
so he can remove
Salvation is positive, not negative. Sin is itself a privation, that is, a deprivation of part of our reality as a human being. Sin does not have a reality to itself; it is like a shadow. The act of salvation is the act of repairing us—of restoring to us that part of ourself which we have destroyed through sin.
an evil force
Sin—original or otherwise—is not an evil force. It is a diminishment of the person. It is a warping, a twisting, of that which is straight just like a broken arm is not something being added to the arm but something being removed from it. Original sin, specifically, is a hereditary problem in that one can’t give what one hasn’t got, and so a lack of perfection is passed on. This is often talked about in a positive way simply because our language works better that way; this is the same way we talk about the “shape” of a shadow despite the fact that it is the light around the shadow which has a shape, not the shadow itself.
from your soul
Again, salvation is the adding to you of that perfection which is missing, not a removal of something which was added.
that is present in humanity because a rib-woman
All women have ribs. I presume this is meant to refer to a literal reading of the book of Genesis as if it were a historical-biological textbook. It isn’t, stop doing that. It refers to God walking in the cool of the evening. God doesn’t have a body. It refers to God asking where Adam and Eve are. God knows everything. This is mythology, not a type of textbook that wouldn’t exist for thousands of years. It was describing important things, not irrelevant details. Our modern fixation on irrelevant details to the exclusion of wisdom produces nothing but misreadings when applied to anything written before several hundred years ago and many things written since. Limit your reading of books as if they are biology textbooks to actual biology textbooks.
was convinced by a talking snake
See above; the serpent is generally understood to represent spiritual powers that wish us harm, such as Satan.
to eat from a magical tree.
Magic has absolutely nothing to do with it. Again, reading the book of Genesis as if you are reading a modern biology textbook is just trying to misunderstand it. The tree in question is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Now, what happens when you eat something? It becomes a part of you. To make good and evil a part of you means that you are doing evil. Talking about “eating from a magic tree” is on the level of reading a cartoon book made for kindergarteners. The story of the fall of man in Genesis talks about how human beings chose evil over perfection when tempted by powers which deceived them. It’s a richly complex story the exegesis of which takes many pages, but to talk about “a magical tree” is to utterly and completely misunderstand it, worse than to think that evolution is about “survival of the fittest” as if that means “everything gets bigger, smarter, faster, and stronger all the time”. It’s a complete misunderstanding on the level of a children’s cartoon book. If you can read this blog post, you can do better than that.
I used to assume that people believed in determinism (that human beings do not have free will) merely as a consequence to materialism, and that they weren’t really invested in it. More recently, however, I’ve come to suspect that it is determinism which they are primarily attracted to, and atheism is a way to achieve that determinism. (Not so explicitly, of course.)
One strong reason I suspect this is that we have direct, unequivocal experience of free will. If there wasn’t a strong attraction to determinism, this experience would render anything which contradicted free will simply unbelievable. (And for many people, it does just that.) So there must be some deeply compelling reason to want to disbelieve in free will. What can it be?
Before I answer that question, I want to note that there are several belief systems which denied free will, since there is a hint to the answer of this question in that fact. Hinduism is varied, but at least according to the hindu philosophers the monism of everything being God leaves no room for individual free will. Free will implies the existence of sin, but since everything is God nothing can be sin. (Ordinary hindus probably do believe in free will, I should note.) Buddhism does not believe in free will, which is just one of its many contradictions. (By Buddhism I mean the original Buddhism of Siddhartha Gautama which was a reaction against his failure to achieve happiness as a hindu yogi; I’m not talking about more modern, often syncretic Buddhisms.) And very interestingly, Martin Luther didn’t believe in free will either. In fact he wrote a whole book about how there’s no such thing as free will. (On the Bondage of the Will. It’s a terrible book.)
Now, what do all these things have in common, and what do they have in common with materialism? They are all reductionist systems. They all posit that reality is less than it seems, in some manner or other. But curiously only two of them are atheistic; the other two are theistic. This suggests that what people really object to is not God, but other people. And indeed, that makes sense in reductionist systems. People are messy. There are so many of them, and if they’re free they’re not explicable by a small number of easily understood rules.
To be content with understanding the universe but not being able to comprehend it (that is, to stand in right intellectual relationship to it but not to be able to fit it inside of one’s head) requires humility, and more than anything it requires trust. Trusting God, specifically (which seems to me to have been Martin Luther’s big hangup). So I suspect something like the following rule is the case:
Those who cannot trust God cannot deal with the existence of their fellow men, and will seek some philosophical means of getting rid of their fellow men as important.
In practice, the really thorny part of one’s fellow human beings is their free will. Thus to any such creature who finds trust in God to be impossible, determinism will have a huge appeal.
(As a post-script, I should note that reducing men to their base instincts is merely a less rigorous way of accomplishing the same denial of free will; wherever you find a man who reduces all men’s actions to greed or lust, you have found a man who doesn’t trust God.)