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This Week in Atheism 2018–07–29


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/07/29

“Polling shows that the number of Americans who self-identify as non-religious is rising. But many atheists say this is actually a difficult time for them in this country. That’s because lawmakers who cite deeply religious backgrounds often set policy. The Supreme Court is just the latest front in those battles.

We discuss it with a panel of non-religious people and leaders. In studio:


“The existence of God is a topic that tends to elicit strong passions. People have their beliefs about whether God exists or not, but they also have their hopes. Many people hope God does exist, but some prominent voices express a hope quite to the contrary.

This idea that one might hope God doesn’t exist appears deeply perplexing from a Christian perspective, so it is perhaps understandable why a Christian might be inclined to assume such a hope is automatically indicative of sinful rebellion. But is that necessarily the case? Or might there be other reasons why a person might hope God doesn’t exist?

Before going any further, we should take a moment to define the topic under debate. As the saying goes, tell me about the god you don’t believe in because I probably don’t believe in that god either. The same point applies to hope: if you hope God doesn’t exist, there is a good chance that I also hope God (as defined) doesn’t exist. So it is critically important that we start by defining God so as not to talk past one another.”


“Imagine you’re the president of a European country. You’re slated to take in 50,000 refugees from the Middle East this year. Most of them are very religious, while most of your population is very secular. You want to integrate the newcomers seamlessly, minimizing the risk of economic malaise or violence, but you have limited resources. One of your advisers tells you to invest in the refugees’ education; another says providing jobs is the key; yet another insists the most important thing is giving the youth opportunities to socialize with local kids. What do you do?

Well, you make your best guess and hope the policy you chose works out. But it might not. Even a policy that yielded great results in another place or time may fail miserably in your particular country under its present circumstances. If that happens, you might find yourself wishing you could hit a giant reset button and run the whole experiment over again, this time choosing a different policy. But of course, you can’t experiment like that, not with real people.

You can, however, experiment like that with virtual people. And that’s exactly what the Modeling Religion Project does. An international team of computer scientists, philosophers, religion scholars, and others are collaborating to build computer models that they populate with thousands of virtual people, or “agents.” As the agents interact with each other and with shifting conditions in their artificial environment, their attributes and beliefs — levels of economic security, of education, of religiosity, and so on — can change. At the outset, the researchers program the agents to mimic the attributes and beliefs of a real country’s population using survey data from that country. They also “train” the model on a set of empirically validated social-science rules about how humans tend to interact under various pressures.”


“The O2 arena is London’s largest. It is not some poky university lecture hall. So later this month, in between shows by The Muppets and Pearl Jam, when the atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris sits down for a debate against University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, there will be more at stake than just an academic argument.

There is a pop cultural title belt on the line, and for the first time in years, the atheist will be the clear underdog.

Peterson is a psychologist whose popular appeal is partly based on his repurposing of religious myth for modern life. He has said the question of whether he is Christian is “complicated,” and at a recent stop of this speaking tour in Vancouver, he said that although he does not believe in God anymore, he “acts as though he exists.””


“elebrity atheists such as Richard Dawkins appear to claim the moral high ground when it comes to violence. Dawkins, along with Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, insist that because religion is intrinsically violent, then atheism is inherently more pacific. After all, if all the evils in the world can be blamed on religion, then arguably eliminating religion is not only desirable but a moral obligation for atheists who believe in peace.

Yet our research shows that in the War on Terror, these atheists have been surprisingly willing to align themselves with policies which are at least as violent — and in some cases more so — than many of those perpetrated in the name of religion.

Our study (jointly conducted by a Christian, an agnostic and an atheist) involved analysing the writing of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens — the so-called “New Atheists”. We sought to establish their positions on US and UK foreign policy since the September 2001 attacks. We critically examined their bestselling books, along with their op-eds, social media posts and videos, to ascertain their positions — not on science or morality — but on politics, especially foreign policy.”



In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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