I recently read your review of Sam Harris' book on Amazon, and while I agree that it is an important book, it is far from a great book and definitely not the statement that we all need about reason and religion. I am attaching my critical essay on Harris and recommending to you my own book, "Natural Atheism," which is not only more comprehensive in its coverage but also more unrelenting in its rationality.  I hope that you will give it a look and offer a review of it as well.  Please visit

for more information. We need people like you spreading the word about reason, and we need the right word to spread.


Thanks for sharing your wonderful review of Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith.” It runs rings around my reaction.

Perhaps one reason I did not focus on the glaring shortcomings you so expertly demolish, is that I knew going in Harris said some really dumb stuff. Indeed, I imagine him re-reading parts of the book and shouting, “Why did I say that? What the hell was I thinking of?” So in retrospect I think my review was simply a reaction to the first part of the book, which as you point out, does a fair job of blasting the thought-numbing dictates of religion. While not a great book, I thought the first section might provide great inspiration to those who are skeptical about belief, with some memorable phraseology, as you point out.

Is there any way I can link to your essay from my Web site? I think people would appreciate reading it. Or if you approve, I could simply put the essay on my site, crediting you, of course, with a picture of your book and link to it and your site. Would that be OK? I don’t think many people look at my site, so admittedly it would not result in a jump in sales for “Natural Atheism.”


This brings us to the topic of atheism. I have no doubt that most people would describe me as a total atheist, and they’d be pretty damn right. I don’t believe in any god, not by the longest shot. Nevertheless, I would not call myself an atheist, not if an atheist is a person who says, for a fact, that there is no god because that goes beyond both my competence and the evidence. Hasn’t the atheist taken a leap of faith based on logic or science, which are both fallible, limited, still-developing, human-made, information systems? I believe you define the rationalist as a person who doesn’t make faith-based claims. I believe atheism is a faith-based stance. It goes beyond the evidence; it helps people confuse personal belief with actual fact; and that’s precisely what I try to avoid.

That’s why I almost never read books about atheism.

Moreover, I am always thrown by the idea of the “passionate” realist or rationalist. It’s sort of like saying you are intensely apathetic, violently pacifistic or passionately objective. I am not saying one human being can’t embody conflicting characteristics, and it’s often very interesting and productive when they do, but people don’t usually identify themselves that way. Maybe we should. Maybe it would be more “honest.”


I must say a word about "honesty." I was surprised to find that word at the end of your essay. “Honesty is perhaps the first requirement of critical thinking, and honesty compels us to admit that ‘spirituality’ is no more rational or benign — and no less ‘faithful’ — than any other species of religion.” 

“Honesty compels us” — that’s a fascinating locution from an avowed rationalist and relativist. You seem to be saying that honesty is an actual thing while faith and spirituality are phantoms. Aren’t they all aspects of human psychology and character? Aren’t they all intangible qualities, states of mind, feelings and ideals that somehow relate to human purposes and values? Aren’t they messy words that stand for all manner of personal-emotional-irrational things?

You seem to be saying that honesty is some sort of positive transcendent quality all people can contact, and indeed they must as a prerequisite to clear thinking. Indeed, they are compelled to do so, as if honesty were an autonomous force to be internally reckoned with. Unless I misunderstand your use of the word, this seems to be a lapse into metaphysics, “the metaphysics of honesty,” if you will, or “the metaphysics of autonomous human qualities that cry for our attention.” Your metaphysical appeal to honesty as a transcendent human trait — and guarantor of right thinking — seems neither relativistic nor rational, at least to my way of thinking. But I am the first to admit my way of thinking is flawed and limited. Or perhaps I simply misunderstood.


Would you say you are the sort of atheist who is an advocate of freethinking across the board — whose skepticism extends even to the claims of atheism — or one who is a True Believer in the non-existence of deities? If you are an atheist of the first sort, I would be interested in your book. If you are an atheist of the second sort, I probably wouldn’t. I see atheists of the second sort as in the same camp as the very people they seek to enlighten, which is to say that my trouble is not only with religion but with true belief of any sort. I don’t see any justification for it. My stance is as simple as that.

I guess I am more enamored with the “weak thought” of Richard Rorty than the strong practice of reason, logic or rationality. Plus, I came to the study of philosophy from literature and psychology. If I were more analytical, I might be 100% in your ballpark. I try to remember that my way of looking at things is just my way of looking at things. I try not to confuse personal values with actual facts.

Are you aware of a new book out by Rorty, Vattimo and Zabala called, “The Future of Religion”? Rorty does a superb job of expressing my sentiments on the state of belief and the manner of approaching ideas. Not to be presumptuous, but here’s a link to my Web site, which will give you a quick overview of the book in case you’re interested.

Also, have you ever seen Milan Kundera’s little volume called, “The Art of the Novel”? I think it has stunning insights into belief.

I have the feeling that you are way smarter and better trained in this area then I am, so I hope you take the time to critique this e-mail, and maybe I can learn something in the process. I am really nothing but a 53-year-old student, still struggling through my course work, and I don’t want to give the impression that I think very much of my progress so far. I don’t. I am still learning. And I am a slow-learner at that.

Thanks again for the wonderful review. And I hope to hear from you again. And I would love to get you on my Web site.


Thanks for your kind words.  Given the market success of Harris' book, I doubt he is second-guessing himself too much!  In fact, I think if he had written an honestly rational book, it would have been much less successful (like mine!).

Please do feel free to post and link to my materials in any way you see fit. I appreciate the promotion.

I am familiar with your position on atheism and "faith," and I hope after you read my book you will have abandoned that position.  It fundamentally misunderstands faith and reason.  Atheism is not a "leap of faith" at all but the logical and necessary conclusion from the rational processing of the evidence and logic.  If I reject the claim that there is a Santa Claus, is that a leap of faith?  Of course not.  It complies with the first rule of critical thinking: do not accept something as true unless there is sufficient evidence to support the claim of its truth. 

To be clear, the atheist does not say, "I am absolutely certain there is no god(s)."  Rather, he says, "I see no merit in your claim about god(s), so until you show me a good reason to accept it, I dismiss it and hold the position that there is no such thing."  That is not "faithful" at all; in fact, it is the very opposite and absence of faith. Faith accepts a claim without evidence or even in the face of contradictory evidence. Reason does not.  So it does not "go beyond the evidence" at all; it is entirely premised on the evidence. Imagine that someone said that there is a supernatural talking dog.  You would not have to demonstrate evidence to reject that claim; that, in fact, would be a fallacy of shifting the burden of proof to the negative.  Rather, the positive has the entire burden (see chapters 1 and 2 of  my book).  Saying "I don't think so" does not require any demonstration; it is a restatement of the fact that the POSITIVE claim has not been demonstrated.  Just like if someone wanted you to "believe" that some potion cures your illness; you do not have to "prove that it doesn't," but rather he must prove that it does.  You would be foolish to just accept his claim (and give him money for it!), but you would be rational to demand more proof or else you are going to send him away.  Without proof, I send god(s) away.

I think you are correct that most books on atheism, and many atheists, are too strident and offensive and that they misrepresent the entire project. That is why I wrote mine.  I am trying to show how atheists should really represent and arrive at their position.

I don't see what you say about honesty.  Honesty is a human trait.  Faith is human too, if you mean the psychological phenomenon of believing something without evidence.  However, the difference is that faith makes claims ABOUT THE WORLD.  If the typical person of faith said "I have faith, but that is only a mental state of mine," I would have no problem with them, although I would think they are talking nonsense.  You have to have faith "in" something, and that something is a fact-claim about the world.  There are only two questions after that: what particular fact-claim is your faith making, and why are you making it?  Someone could have faith that Santa exists and will bring presents, and that is indeed a mental state — ONLY a mental state.  The "factual" part of the claim is false.  The factual claim of any god(s)-talk is also almost certainly false.

I don't know why you would say any such thing about "positive transcendent qualities."  I am simply saying that a person should not misrepresent the facts, twist the facts, or pre-select the facts when making an argument.  THAT is dishonest.  There is nothing "metaphysical" about that at all, it is pure method. I of course think of myself as a rational first and an atheist second. Any kind of "true believer" who is going to hold a position no matter what is not thinking rationally.  I subject ALL fact claims to rational demands (and, as a relativist, I do not subject non-fact claims, like feelings, values, morals, etc. to the same demands).  It is very important to know when someone is making a fact claim (about the world) rather than a judgment (about their reaction to the world). 

I think atheism is the correct conclusion, however one has happened to arrive at it (after all, you can get a question right by guessing!), but the only rational way to hold a conclusion is by the evidence and the logic. As you will see from the book, I reject "belief" on principle, since it is always deficient by definition.  That does not mean that it is always WRONG (again, you can hold the right position for the wrong reason), but the only way we can be reasonably confident with our conclusions is if they are based on adequate facts and logic.

In conclusion, atheism does not "make claims" but rather REJECTS claims.  When a Christian says that he does not believe in Zeus or in animal spirits or in reincarnation, he is not making a claim but rejecting a claim.  Nobody seems to mind that kind of negativity.  Used as a model, atheism is simply saying, "I see no evidence for what you are talking about — in fact, I don't even think the words have any meaning — so I reject your claim until you show me some."  I think we can conclude pretty firmly, on available evidence (of centuries or millennia) that there is no such thing as god(s), and animal spirits, and reincarnation.  If any evidence ever shows up (a serious doubt) then of course the only rational thing is to accept it. But then it would not be belief any more but knowledge — so belief would still have been unfounded.

I hope that sheds some light on my thinking and the thinking that I hold all atheists should engage in.  If everyone did, there would be no such thing as religion nor as "true believers" of any kind.


Thanks for the note and the further explanation. Since I have Amazon Prime, I went ahead and ordered your book from them last night, so it should be here in a few days, and then I can begin reading and understand even better. And thanks for letting me put your review on my site; I hope to do that Thursday. I am wondering if I should put our e-mails on a page as well, as our discussion might shed some light on the topic. What do you think?

I have had about 24 hours to think about your latest e-mail; here are a few thoughts.


I took a logic course in college to satisfy a math requirement. I wasn't too excited, but the next year I took a symbolic logic course and would have aced it had I not overslept and missed half the final. In spite of that background, I can't get through a logic book. I have tried a couple times in the past few years. I think the best way to describe the experience is to say that I am simply indifferent to the charms of logic. But I have done a little bit of reading in the philosophy of science:

I suppose I use logic in a rather intuitive way, but for me, logic as a system of developing right views about the world, is about as useful as the Bible. My dear grandmother thought Christianity was the right system to use, but I could not get interested. You seem to be saying that logic is the right system to use, but again, I can't get interested. She said I would be wrong if I didn't follow the Bible; you seem to indicate I am wrong if I don't follow logic: "I am familiar with your position on atheism and 'faith,' and I hope after you read my book you will have abandoned that position. It fundamentally misunderstands faith and reason."


Another train of thought goes like this: When you say you are a "passionate rationalist," you reveal that you are a psychological being, one that values a logical approach to life. Who knows exactly why? As psychological beings, I don't believe we know the roots of our enthusiasms; though you can, I suppose, give many good reasons why you love logic, I think it would come back to the end result -- after all the reason-giving gave out -- that you simply have an affinity for that approach. So while logic is logical, the love of logic is an emotional state of a psychological entity.

So when you say you hope I will abandon my current position, it seems to indicate a belief that logic is right for everyone. This view seems to miss the point that we're individuals with different orientations, influences and ways of understanding the world. I am not saying you have a missionary zeal in regards logic ... but I am getting that impression.

I like what Richard Rorty says in this regard: "Kierkegaard rightly said that philosophy began to set up itself up as a rival to religion when Socrates suggested that our self-knowledge was a knowledge of God -- that we had no need of help from a non-human person, because the truth was already within us. But literature  began to set itself up as a rival to philosophy when people like Cervantes and Shakespeare began to suspect that human beings were, and ought to be, so diverse that there is no point in pretending that they all carry a single truth deep in their bosoms.  Santayana pointed to this seismic cultural shift in his essay 'The absence of religion in Shakespeare.' That essay might equally well have called, 'The absence of either religion or philosophy in Shakespeare' or simply, 'The absence of truth in Shakespeare.'"


You say belief is always "deficient by definition." So I think you are saying that knowledge is one thing and belief another, and we can know the difference. But how can you be sure of your knowledge? As a fallible, limited being -- who can't grasp the roots of his enthusiasms -- how can you untangle the difference between knowledge and belief? It all comes back to your own judgments about yourself and what you believe constitutes knowledge. It comes down to FAITH in your own judgment! I don't think logic lets you divide up faith, belief and knowledge in the way you think it does. But I will know more when I read your book.


In other words, you can check your grasp of logic against the rules of logic, but it's still YOU that's checking; or you can check your knowledge about religion and atheism by writing a book and getting feedback from readers and getting some consensus of opinion; but it's still YOU that is absorbing and processing that consensus-information. It's YOU checking all this stuff, and you -- the passionate rationalist -- are psychological first, logical second.


It's using words like "pure" that raises a red flag about missionary zeal; it's as if your passion about logic is reveals you not as a typical, blase guy, watching NBA games and drinking beer, but one that's very inspired by a certain tool, a certain system for grasping and ordering statements and experience. We might say it's your very passion for logic that diminishes your claims for it. In other words, logic doesn't necessarily save us from being under the influence of our own psychology ... it's an expression of that influence.


So, I need to read your book, and I look forward to doing so, and perhaps some of these questions and concerns will be cleared up.

I leave you with a few questions:

• Do you believe that a person is fundamentally a psychological system and that the choice of logic as a subsystem and tool is basically a choice -- I am tempted to say an emotional choice -- that fulfills some need or expresses some quality of that person?

• And do you think that the complexity of psychology prohibits absolute claims in regards one's own knowledge, so when we talk about our knowledge in glowing terms, fallible judgment, belief and faith are also present, even if we don't want to acknowledge them?

• And finally, isn't it "logical" to factor in these psychological possibilities to guard against being overzealous in our claims about our knowledge or the systems we use to make sense of the world?


Thanks for writing back. Apparently we are going to have a high-level
philosophical discussion!

I am sorry you had a dispiriting experience with logic. I know it can
be very abstract, and I am certainly no master of it at that level.
However, what logic simply understands is the dependable rules for putting
facts together to get to sound conclusions. All the details are beyond
that, and some of them are way too technical. Read chapter 2 and you will
see what I mean: a person can have true facts and still make a bad
argument out of them, by using them in spurious combinations. Logic is if
you will the "grammar" of reason, and facts are the "words." A very
primitive example: it is true that frogs are green, and it is true that I
have something green in my pocket, but it is NOT true that I have frog
in my pocket. That is putting two true facts together to get a false
conclusion. (I have money in my pocket, which is also green!).
A person can stumble upon a true position without or even in
contradiction of logic, but one cannot demonstrate that position nor hold it
dependably that way.

I value a logical approach to truth (not "life") because, as I said,
logic, in combination with facts, is the only way to arrive at sound
conclusions that one can confidently assert and demonstrate as true.
Outside the arena of fact-claims, logic has no place whatsoever. However,
since religion makes fact-claims ("there is a god with X or Y traits")
it falls within the province of logic and reason.

No, it is NOT an affinity, but a recognition that ONLY facts and logic
produce sound conclusions on questions of fact. All other approaches
can be demonstrated to produce false or undependable results.
One does not "believe in logic." One practices it. One does not believe
in algebra. One practices it.

Rorty is important but ridiculous. I am not that kind of relativist:
not an epistemological relativist ("there is no truth") but a cultural
relativist (all judgments of good, normal, moral, legal, or of meaning
are relative to some cultural standard of goods, norms, morals, laws, or
meanings). Judgments of that sort are not "fact claims" (it is
nonsense to say that X is "really good" or "really normal," just as it is
nonsense to say that sticking out your tongue is "really an insult" when it
is a greeting in some cultures.

Yes, knowledge is one thing and belief another, and we can know the
difference. Read chapter 5 of my book. It is a central idea.
Of course humans are psychological systems, but that does not mean that
there is nothing objective in the world. You are confusing two clearly
different domains of reality. My feelings are subjective, but logic
(and facts) are not. It is BECAUSE we are psychological beings, prone to
error and interest, that we must cautiously apply a tried and tested
method like logic or science. One can, I suppose, choose not to apply
logic, but only to one's detriment, and everyone applies at least a naive
logic to all of their actions: when we adjust the antenna on our TV, we
are using logic: "Well, I already tried putting it there and nothing
happened, so I will not put it there again."

No, belief and faith are not necessary parts of knowledge. I regard
them as entirely different processes — and demonstrably faulty ones at
that. We must factor in all kinds of things to guard against the limitations
of our knowledge. Of those factors, belief and faith are perhaps the
ones we must guard against the most.


I should read your book before going forward with this
discussion. It might save lots of typing.

But just to stick up for Rorty a little bit: I have
not read everything he's written, but I have never
seen him say there's no such thing as truth. He would
be the first to ask, "What could be the basis for such
a crazy statement?" You'd have to somehow get past
your time, place, influences, character and knowledge
to find a foothold for that one. I've never seen him
go there.

So I would say your beliefs about Rorty don't
constitiute knowledge about Rorty -- and that points
out the a problem with knowledge and belief. And if
you continue to think your description is accurate,
that might bring in the issue of faith.

I might be tempted to say that whenever we think of
anything there's a combination of knowledge, belief,
judgment, faith and then some sort of conclusion. I
think these things are more mixed up than you give
them credit for.

I love the way Milan Kundera puts it: People want to
judge before they understand. Religion (and a variety
of other human systems and practices) are based on
this desire. It's a reaction against the fearful
ambiguity of all things human.

PS. How about putting these exchanges on my Web site?


Indeed, I will be curious to see what you think after you have read it.
It is — quite intentionally — unlike anything else out there.

I admit that I have not read much Rorty; mostly I have read things
about him. The impression that I get is that he is a fairly radical
epistemological relativist — that is, he is more interested in the ways we
talk about things than the possibility of "knowing things" as such. At
least, that is how he is represented on the following site:

There is a certain value to what he is saying, but two things are true:

(1) that has nothing to do with cultural relativism, which is the only
position I am interested in defending, and (2) it does not necessarily
defeat the entire point of knowledge but rather just alerts us to the
complications and challenges to it. In that way, he is in line with
(and probably a follower and/or plagiarizer of) Wittgenstein. Yes, we
cannot help talk about the world with some language, and yes, that
language limits and constructs our experience of that world, but we can also
become aware of those limitations and attempt to circumvent them.
Probably never completely successfully, but if not at least partially, then
what is the point of him telling us this?

If I have Rorty wrong, then not only do I accept it, but I think it
also proves my general point about knowledge and belief: If I had
sufficient evidence of Rorty's statements, then I would have knowledge of him,
but if I am making my assertions on the basis of incomplete or false
information, or just on my own wishful thinking or the authority of
others, I might still get it right but I could never call my claims

That, then, shows the profound difference between me and anyone who
maintains "faith" in something. If I am shown new information on whatever
subject, I am more than happy to change my assertions. It would be
stupid to do otherwise. People of real "faith" seem to want and intend to
keep their faith no matter what the evidence indicates; that is the
point of "believing without seeing" as Jesus (allegedly) said to Thomas.
If I don't see, I don't believe — that is, I do not "go ahead and
believe anyway." Rather, I say, "I don't know" and make no claims.

On the other hand, if a position is being and has been advanced for a
long time, and is advanced as "true" (like talk about gods), we cannot
no longer, as William James said, be neutral. We must either accept
that claim or reject it. There is no intermediate position. "Waiting to
accept" is tentatively rejecting — at least, that's how a god would see
it if there was one! But since the burden of proof falls completely on
the one asserting the claim, "tentatively rejecting" is exactly what we
should do, on EVERY issue, not just religious ones. We should and do
tentatively reject medical claims and extraterrestrial claims and legal
claims. That is how the two areas most devoted to sorting out true from
false — science and jurisprudence — operate: scientists proceed from the
"null hypothesis" and jurists proceed from the "presumption of
innocence" (that is, the falseness of the charge). If we do the same — and we
should — then we proceed from the presumption of atheism, and theists
have to dislodge us with strong evidence.

What Kundera appears to be saying is fun, but it is not really
accurate. "Religions" do not universally or even generally have the qualities
he is ascribing to them. He is only talking about a few familiar
modern monotheisms. Most religions that humans have had have not been
monotheisms or theisms at all. That is a point not seriously raised in my
book, but it is a point that I intend to develop and promote next: we
cannot use Christianity as the model of "religion," and when we do we let
Christianity dominate and control the entire discourse about religion,
belief, knowledge, and reason. Christianity is one of thousands of
religions and not typical of them in any way. We need to put Christianity
in its place — one late, particular, atypical religion — before we
proceed to say anything about it or religion in general. But by the time we
have put it in its place, there is little else we need to say. As I
write in my book, the best argument against any religion is not science
or reason or atheism but ALL THE OTHER RELIGIONS!

Sure, feel free to post our exchanges, although please proofread mine
before you do, because I compose them fast and in the browser, so I
might let spelling errors get through.


"Outside the arena of fact-claims, logic has no place
whatsoever. However, since religion makes fact-claims
('there is a god with X or Y traits') it falls within
the province of logic and reason."

Your sentence above has had me thinking about logic
all day long: while I had my teeth cleaned; while I
drove to work; while I designed the Plain Dealer Metro
cover and waited for pictures and stories to come back
from their respective desks; and I am sure I will be
thinking about it as I drive home.

Perhaps you've already said as much — or maybe it's
covered in your book — but this is what I've come up
with after a day of pondering.

While logic can help us evaluate statements, it can't
tell us anything about reality ... only statements.
For example, I may offer a series of statements about
god, which you may violate the rules of logic, but
disproving those statements says nothing about the
existence of a god or a supernatural realm. All logic
can do is demonstrate that I don't know what I am
talking about. It leaves many possible realities

Indeed, you could subject all the statements of all the
beleivers and all the systems they follow and find
them all illogical ... but this would not mean there's
no such thing as a god or a supernatural world. It
would only show that none of the descriptions so far
have been logical.

More ... someone who reviewed your book (if I read it
right) says you claim logic is good and necessary. But
you could not arrive at that opinion from logic, could
you? Which is to say, logic could not be used to prove
that logic is good, only logical, right?

So those are my thoughts on logic for the day. Please
comment if you have the chance. Thanks.


You seem to take me for much more of a radical than I actually am. As
far as I can see, reason is the very soul of intellectual caution.

Seeing that there are all kinds of claims, sensible and silly, vying for
our attention, we must use some method to cut the ridiculous from the
reasonable, and careful collection and interpretation of evidence along
with careful processing with logic are that method.

I can see that you are clearly under the sway of Rorty, in terms of all
this "statements" talk. Yes, we humans approach and talk about the
world in terms of "statements," but I would disagree that reason can only
evaluate statements or that statements do not refer to reality in some
way. I am no vulgar "correspondence theorist," but if we think that we
are just floating ungrounded in a dimension of language and discourse,
then what is the point of it all? If our statements, especially
propositions, do not refer to the real outside world in some say, why bother?

As you will see from my book, and any intelligible treatment of reason,
logic alone does not guarantee truth or falseness. Logic is, however,
one of the two requirements for "soundness" of an argument, and a sound
argument is true by definition. The two parts of a case are the
premises and the logic; neither alone is sufficient, since you can have true
facts and use them wrong to arrive at unsound conclusions, or you can
have valid logic and apply it to false facts to arrive at unsound

Now, unsound conclusions are not NECESSARILY false; they are simply
untrustworthy. That is, to use my earlier example, if frogs are green and
I have something green in my pocket, it is possible that it is a frog,
but making the argument this way does not help. You might as well
guess. Draw a Venn diagram and you will see what I am saying. However, if
frogs are green and I have a frog in my pocket, we can be deductively
certain that I have something green in my pocket. This is, of course,
one of the very most basic examples and rules of logic, but when we lay
out all of the important ones that we should consider, we can avoid a
lot of error and retain (a few) claims that are actually sound and
therefore true.

Again, while I am not vulgar pragmatist, I am saying that logic is good
because it is effective — that is, it yields results. If we are
illogical, we still arrive at conclusions, but quite honestly they are no more
likely true, and no more psychologically dependable, than pure
guessing. So, as a "hypothetical imperative" (a la Kant), if you want to
arrive at sound conclusions — and who doesn't? — then you must use reason,
which includes logic. But that in itself is not a "logical" argument at
all, but rather a practical one. So no, logic cannot be used to prove
that logic is good, because "good" cannot be "proven" no matter what the
subject. As cultural relativists, we know that "good" depends on your
standards, your goals, and your results.


Thanks for the info. I hope to get your book today. I
am looking forward to it more and more. I have started
putting together a page on all this stuff. It's not
linked fo the site yet, but I will send you a link in
a couple of hours for an early look at where I am
going with it. thanks again for writing back!


My pleasure. Hopefully we will have more to say — in complete
agreement! — after you have read it.


I am up to page 50 in your book, and I am really enjoying it. It's much more of a general survey of ideas than a treatise on logic, which is what I feared after some of your early e-mails: the idea that the "right" word has to be spread and that Harris was not rational enough in his approach.

I am also enjoying the book because we use some of the same ideas and approaches. The idea that religion's biggest problem is with itself; that theists have more to settle with each other than with nonbelievers; that the devout believer and the nonbeliever are really 99.999999% in agreement because the doubter doubts all religions while the believer doubts all but one. I used that in an e-mail some years ago with a coworker. I had never seen anyone take that approach before — or since.

I must admit that the passage on the definition of agnosticism was a bit much. I am thinking of the section where a friend or acquaintance points out that a dictionary definition relates atheism with a positive stance on the nonexistence of god, and you say something to the effect that dictionaries can be wrong and that, "I as a self-conscious Atheist ought to know what I think." That sort of arrogance might have put me totally off the book if I hadn't already been corresponding with you.

Also, I think your presentation is clear and that some of the turns of phrase are witty and fresh. But there is an underlying dogmatism that creeps in at times that is somewhat off-putting to me but might be very attractive for people seeking empowerment for their non-belief. So I see why the book is getting good reviews and attention. And I think it deserves to sell lots of copies ... at least that's my impression after 50 pages.

But then there's the idea of married bachelors and something I was pondering a lot yesterday, and it comes back to a logical versus psychological approach to life, not that they are mutually exclusive, of course.

Once can certainly go through life with a strong logical orientation. He can relate to people as a logic-advocate, listening for and remarking on all manner of illogicality and irrationality, like pointing out there's no such thing as a married bachelor. And in so doing, he can build up a certain understanding about people and the world we live in. But one can also go through life with a more psychological orientation. He can listen to people and note all manner of illogicality and irrationality, and NOT comment on it or point it out, or even subject it to the rules of logic in his own mind, but just keep it in mind as food for thought; and that person can also build up a certain understanding about people and the world we live in. Now, who is to say which person has built up more understanding about the world?

In other words, one can be a person who points out there can be no such thing as a married bachelor, while another person can be intrigued by that juxtaposition of words and actually try to imagine a married bachelor and what such words might possibly describe. And indeed, I would put forth the idea that we probably have quite a number of married bachelors and single husbands. But if one sticks to the rules of logic he will never enter the realm of married bachelors, single husbands, childless mothers, studentless teachers, straight gay people and many other logically impossible but psychologically possible conditions.

If there's a moral to this story, it's that the logically minded person develops a way of life, which can be rewarding to him and to others, and the psychologically minded person can do the same. So can the mythologically minded person! And so on. So, you may certainly prize logic as your route to inspiration and understanding; but if you start promoting it as the one-and-only or even the "best" way forward then I think you are on very thin ice indeed.

Speaking of logic ... I am tempted to ask, "What was the logic behind posing with your cat for your book-jacket photo?" Perhaps there's a link between logic and pet ownership that eludes me, or between logic and cats. But I am not being critical of the picture. I like it and appreciate it as a whimsical, not logical, choice.

One more point. You wrote in an e-mail: "I am simply saying that a person should not misrepresent the facts, twist the facts, or pre-select the facts when making an argument. THAT is dishonest." But you say it is "good and necessary" — to preselect the process, which is logic. I might say that preselecting the process is a long way toward preselecting the questions you can ask and the answers you will get. So is that honest? You also mentioned in one e-mail that cultural relativism is the main thing you really find worth defending, so I am left to wonder: If cultural relativism is one of the overarching conditions of our lives, and I happen to think that it is, then how does logic, which is a culturally produced process, get such a position of honor?

I should not even say "honor," for an answer to that can properly be, "Because I know of nothing better." So it's not simply that you honor logic, but I keep getting the impression that perhaps you think logic is the way past cultural relativism, that logic and rationality — which obviously has such prominence in our culture — is really some sort of extra-cultural tool that lets us finally set aside our colored and etched spectacles and see what's "really" there, what's "really" the truth.

So I guess I would ask the question, "Do you think we are fundamentally — to the best of our knowledge — culturally, historically, socially, psychologically formed, or are there ways (logic) to finally clear the lenses and let us see things as they truly are?" This is the point I was trying to make a few e-mails back about you being psychological entity using a logical tool, that logic is a tool to help you make decisions, but not something that can mandate what you think; that after all the logic is done, YOU must still make the decision that, perhaps, there is no god because there has never been a logical account of any deity or supernatural world. Logic can no more dictate what to think than your table saw can tell you what to build.

This brings us to your readers. Don't you think many will feel empowered toward certainties that aren't actually validated ... not even by logic? In short, I think the way toward "clear thinking" about belief is to impress on people their status as relative beings ... not empower them toward certainties that are not actually valid.

About a month ago I revised something I wrote in 2004 and elevated it as the main essay that explains my whole Web site and reading-writing project. It's short and to the point — and I just added a sentence about logic.


Bravo! I just got to page 56 where you go into the "statistical argument," and actually get into percentages as I did in the previous e-mail.

"In other words, the chance of any particular religion being correct, all things being equal, is the reciprocal of the number of the religions in the world — an infinitesimally small number. In the end, it is almost certain that, whatever religion you choose, you are wrong."

In other words, as I wrote my coworker some years ago, since he believed in only one of 100,000 religions and I believed in none were were in 99.99999999% agreement. I didn't do the exact calculations and probably added more figures after the decimal point than necessary ... but I don't do math!

I wonder if I can find that e-mail? As I recall it was rather whimsical. If I find it I will send it along.*

So in other words, we can show theists the relativity of their own beliefs to help them realize that their god description differs from all other god descriptions, which is why their system is a system (thousands of Christian sects means thousands of somewhat different god descriptions and systems of worship), and second, by showing them that religion in general is, in this regard, a self-negating and self-consuming cultural artifact, that each religion constitutes an argument against all others, that religion is an implosionary construct.

For me, I think this is an easier conclusion to reach if we simply start looking at belief in general and the role psychology plays in belief. I can't recall who said it, and maybe I have already introduced this idea, but "religion refashions itself endlessly down to the individual personality." In other words, we will have to add an infinitesimal number of 9s to our equation when we realize that people in the same sect, sitting right next to each other in the pews, don't completely agree on god descriptions, which means that even within the narrow boundaries of their sect's doctrines, they emphasize different things. We might say that it is psychologically impossible for two people to look at anything in exactly the same way, even those sworn to a religious belief or absolute ideology of some sort. There are always variations, which show the impossibility of absolutely correct belief across even a small sect.

But let's return to the end of the section on page 57, where you make another very important point.

"As a final comment: The 'sociological' argument from 'other theisms' is the main reason why Atheists should stop squabbling about Christianity and the Christian Bible. ... We should force theists to face their own diversity — and their own contradictory, self-canceling diversity — instead of taking them on one by one."

If I may paraphrase and add a psychological twist: Each individual theist must be aware that if what they are saying is true, then only their tiny sect — among all belief systems ever attempted — has actually understood who god is and what god wants, and that this is absurdly unlikely, and that even the person praying next to them has a slightly different perception of what that constitutes due to necessary psychological differeneces. So what does being absolutely right have to do with it?

Have you ever read any Marcus Borg? I bought a bargain book on him once, not willing to pay full price for something I figured would bore me to tears, but I found to my surprise that he puts forth a similar view, the idea that worship can't be about getting beliefs right. Here's a link if you're interested.

Anyway, I love the way you conclude the idea on page 57.

"In the end they (theists) have not only the burden of proof but a double burden of proof: not only to prove that a god exists but to prove that their particular god exists. This, if six thousand years of recorded history is any indication, they cannot do. And perhaps it will even plant a seed of doubt or skepticism in their own heads." Yes, yes, yes! Bravo!

Indeed, they way forward can then be seen as the application of doubt to any sort of claim or system that merits your attention and inspires you skepticism — even logic, even psychology, even the idea that cultural relativism is the last word on the limit to understanding. Religion is not the only thing that consumes itself as it evolves.


It just now occurs to me that this gets us into the area of what Rorty and Vattimo call, "weak thought," which is a very unfortunate name for a productive process. I could quote them at length, but instead I will give you my paraphrase of what I think they mean by "weak thought." I think they are saying that over time people think differently and view things differently and that any concept that's trying to maintain its integrity (like a religion, for example) is actually eroded by people who embrace it but also erode it or reshape it for their own use. So times change, people change, ideas and views change, and all this erodes/weakens old thought structures, and we have new sects/ideologies/ideas. It's not so much a process you can use to gather knowledge but a process you can watch and pick up food for thought. "Weak thought" points toward something — playing off the title of your book — we might call "natural skepticism."


Thanks for your praise, in this and your later email. I am glad that
you are seeing me as more rational than you thought, and less a
"one-issue candidate."

I fail to see why you think it is arrogant that I would want to define
myself rather than have someone else define me. Quite honestly,
dictionaries are mostly written by theists, so we must beware of how they define things that they do not really know or like. And dictionaries always only reflect common usage, not analytical categories; that is why every discipline from science to philosophy to religion has to define its own terms. Finally, in this case the dictionary (and "popular") definitions of atheism and agnosticism are simply wrong.

I am not quite sure what you find dogmatic, but there certainly are
well-established rules of clear thought and well-established violations of those rules. I see nothing "dogmatic" about following the tried-and-true methods, or at least undesirably dogmatic about it. If it is dogmatic to self-consciously avoid error, then count me in!

I have met a couple of other people who keep returning to the
logical/psychological dichotomy. However, like them, you are not seeing a third alternative -- empirical. Admittedly, marriage is a socially-defined institution, but having been defined, now it exists. If we distinguish two states -- married and unmarried -- and use the term "bachelor" to refer to the latter state for males, then there is no way (psychologically or otherwise) that the two states can co-exist in one person. Perhaps poetically, but not factually. I think "trying to imagine married bachelors" is essentially a training-exercise for irrationality and belief.

It is impossible IN PRINCIPLE for such a thing to exist, and if we start entertaining impossible things in our minds, then which other
impossible things (gods? dead ancestors?) will we also entertain?

As far as logic goes, it is not a matter of pre-selection. That is to
lose all historical perspective. That is like saying, "Why do you
pre-select relativity theory or quantum theory?" They are NOT pre-selected, but rather arrived at AT THE END of a long train of thought, observation, analysis, and rejection of previous and false claims and assertions.

Reason is to be practiced because (1) it has been practiced
successfully now for a long time and (2) all other practices can be demonstrated to yield at worst false and at best unreliable results.
Of course we are socially and culturally formed. Remember, I am an anthropologist, so that is my bread and butter. But I am not talking about US but about the world outside our heads. And because we ARE socially formed, we must be particularly cautious about our claims of the world: we must be alert to when we are just describing our personal or cultural perspectives and when we are actually talking about the world. It is a process that we will never finish, but we must be constantly aware of it. Reason, as I have said, is the best tool for achieving that goal.

I would agree with you that only we humans can determine when a
proof-burden has been met, but on the standards we have established, we can say, to the best of our current knowledge and analysis, that not only is there no reason to entertain seriously the notion of god(s) but that such a notion itself may have no meaning and be nothing more than a cultural sound without external referent. No matter how "psychological" we are, we can make the sound "unicorn" or "blork" without it referring to anything outside our "psychology." That is why we must be oh so careful about confusing psychological and cultural noises and real external


Now this is a curious statement:

"As far as logic goes, it is not a matter of pre-selection. That is to lose all historical perspective. That is like saying, 'Why do you pre-select relativity theory or quantum theory?' They are NOT pre-selected, but rather arrived at AT THE END of a long train of thought, observation, analysis, and rejection of previous and false claims and assertions."

AT THE END? You say I have lost historical perspective and then you say AT THE END? Is the world going to end soon, or are we at the end of what we can learn? It that the right historical perspective? Why isn't this simply the early stage of the gradual buildup of knowledge? Anyone at just about any point in history can say their method is good because of it's "long" tradition. I bet someone who read chicken guts was once heard to defend the practice because of its long usefulness.

You also write that "I have met a couple of other people who keep returning to the logical/psychological dichotomy. However, like them, you are not seeing a third alternative -- empirical."

I think that's exactly what I am seeing. When you leave your conceptual framework behind for real-world testing, you are very likely to find things that don't fit into the system, like that strange bird, the married bachelor, which is not a dictionary definition, but a psychological description.

I recently heard an interesting discussion on Piaget's theory of conservation. To review: Pour liquid from a squat beaker into a tall one and ask a child which has more; the tall one, of course. Then comes the time when they learn that's not the case, that shape doesn't dictate volume, and they give the "right" answer: Same amount. Ah, they have reached a state of conceptual thinking!

But the idea was brought in that if a person were less conceptual and more empirical they might decide to measure the liquid, and if they did they would find there is less liquid in the second container because some is still clinging to the inside of the first beaker and perhaps some was lost to evaporation during pouring. So conceptually speaking you get one answer and empirically speaking you get another. Conceptual thinking is good, but often empirical testing is necessary.

There's the conceptual world where energy and fluid are conserved IN OUR THEORIES and the real world where conceptual theories never map entirely onto reality. So we have the conceptual world where married bachelors are impossible by definition and the actual world where they exist because the real world is an irrational, psychological place. And I will leave it to you to decide which approach gives you the sort of information you require for your needs and your life. But it's YOU -- and not logic -- that makes the final judgment about it. Logic comes in after the fact of you, as a person, who chooses it among a variety of other approaches to life.

So one might wonder: Is it logical for a psychological being to favor conceptualism over messy empiricism? Or is it simply a way to control the ambiguity of all things human? I guess one of the things I think of as a key to living an "honest" life (we're back to that word for a moment) is to see what we're doing in our own heads, HOW WE ARE FRAMING THINGS AND FOR WHAT PURPOSE.

And in the past couple days I have come to think of you in regards a quote I came across recently, and I wish I could find the exact wording, but it goes like this: "The religious person is the one who finds it essential to deny the attachment of any subjectivity to his claims." This is also true of to the dogmatic or ideological person. As you said in an earlier e-mail, it's not that you have an "affinity" for logic; it's just the best thing for clear thinking. It's as if you don't see that logic and your judgments about logic are two different things, that your use of logical is psychological -- because what else could it be, since it is YOU making the decision to use it. You can't factor yourself out of the equation, though you seem intent on trying; to think psychologically is not training in illusory thinking but a vaccination against it. Or so it seems to me.

This combination of logic/illogic comes out in the book, too. Let's look at page 57. You are going along so wonderfully at the top of the page, but then we hit this major clunker:

"If one follows all twelve steps AND TAKES THEM TO HEART (my emphasis), thinks about them, and practices them, then one can be ASSURED (my emphasis) of being on the road to recovery."

Take them to heart! Suddenly we have flown the field of logic and entered into faith. So, the first rule of the twelve-step program is to have faith in the plan. It is somewhat ironic to think that the clear-thought program, as you define it, is something that must be believed in.

Then you say that atheists (I note you capitalize "Atheist," and you'll note that I don't) ... can recover their certainty and their confidence that their conclusions are sound and that their positions are justified. But whence comes certainty? Not from logic, except in regard logic problems. Not from empiricism, not for anyone who has studied the philosophy of science and has seen how theories are prone to overthrow each other.

And even more egregious is that when advocating the program to theists you say they can "step into the world without gods, which is the only world there is." The only world there is? That's put forward as a factual statement, and it may well be -- and indeed, that's my personal way of viewing it -- but that statement is, first and foremost, a personal statement, not a logical one. It's a leap to a conclusion based on faith in a logical approach.

This comes back to psychology and what I mean when I say it behooves us to dig at the roots of our own character. Otherwise, we give the lie to what we're saying in the very act of saying it. One of the best sources of such knowledge is not even psychological books; it's Greek tragedy.

In summary, I think at the bottom of page 57 you abandon logic for faith and confuse the reader into thinking that he's just received the tools for making certain truth claims about theology and the actual nature of the world, the godless world being "the only world there is." I think you're trying to inspire feelings of certainty, which does not at all fit in with your regard for logic and clear thinking.

It is logical to use logic to get yourself within striking (or leaping) distance of personal conclusions? The moment you talk about certainty, justification and facts of the "real world" is when you stop being logical and start showing you're psychological, VERY psychological. In other words, if one is scrupulously intent on clear thinking, he points out the limits of logic; he does not use logic as a springboard for leaps into thin air.

Karl Popper seemed scrupulous about taking pains to make readers aware of human and methodological limitations because he did not want to blur that line. He did not want to be a preacher of the gospel of logic or empiricism because he realized it was beyond his competence -- and the evidence and the methods available -- to be a preacher of anything. He did not want to empower people with false claims. Here are a few statements from various texts:

"Although in science we do our best to find the truth, we are conscious of the fact that we can never be sure whether we have got it. We have learned in the past, from many disappointments, that we must not expect finality. And we have learned not to be disappointed any longer if our scientific theories are overthrown; for we can, in most cases, determine with great confidence which of any two theories is the better one. We can therefore know that we are making progress; and it is this knowledge that to most of us atones for the loss of the illusion of finality and certainty."

" ... this view of scientific method means that in science there is no “knowledge” in the sense in which Plato and Aristotle understood the word, in the sense that implies finality; in science we never have sufficient reason for the belief that we have attained the truth. What we usually call “scientific knowledge” is, as a rule, not knowledge in this sense, but rather information regarding the various competing hypotheses and the way in which they have stood up to various tests; it is, using the language of Plato and Aristotle, information concerning the latest, and the best tested, scientific “opinion.” This view means, furthermore, that we have no proofs in science (excepting, of course, pure mathematics and logic). In the empirical sciences, which alone can furnish us with information about the world we live in, proofs to not occur, if we mean by “proof” an argument that  establishes once and forever the truth of a theory."

"The way in which knowledge progresses, and especially our scientific knowledge, is by unjustified (and unjustifiable) anticipations, by guesses, by tentative solutions to our problems, by conjectures. These conjectures are controlled by criticism; that is, by attempted refutations, which include severely critical tests. They may survive these tests; but they can never be positively justified: They can be established neither as certainly true nor even as “probable” (in the sense of the probability calculus)."

"As we learn from our mistakes our knowledge grows, even though we may never know — that is, know for certain. Since our knowledge can grow, there can be no reason here for despair of reason. And since we can never know for certain, there can be no authority here for any claim to authority, for conceit over knowledge, or for smugness."

"The Enlightenment thinker speaks as simply as possible. He wants to be understood … because the true Enlightenment thinker, the true rationalist, never wants to talk anyone into anything. No, he does not even want to convince: All the time he is aware that he may be wrong. Above all, he values the intellectual independence of others too highly to want to convince them in important matters. He would much rather invite contradiction, preferably in the form of rational and disciplined criticism. He speaks not to convince but to arouse — to challenge others to form free opinions. Free opinion formation is precious to him: Not only because this brings us all closer to the truth, but also because he respects free opinion formation as such."

"Because I am a rationalist, I do not want to convert anybody. Nor do I want to abuse the name of freedom to turn anyone else into a rationalist. But I should like to challenge others to contradict me; I should like, if possible, to prompt others to see things in a new light, so that each may take his own decision in the freest possible formation of opinion. Every rationalist must say with Kant: One cannot teach philosophy — at most only philosophizing, which means a critical attitude."


I do not have the time to nitpick and go over and over these same
arguments. If you read my book carefully, you will see that I make a clear
distinction between when reason and logic are appropriate to use and
when they are not. And I find it to be a non-problem to use figurative
and metaphorical language like "take it to heart" without seeming to
take it seriously or turn against reason. Gee whiz, we all know that the
heart is not a thinking or feeling organ; it's just a metaphor.

Reason is how we test the world outside our heads. With any luck, our
knowledge-claims about it bear some relationship to it. We will have to
keep testing and testing, and checking to make sure we are not
confusing our mental world for the objective world. But that does not mean
there is not an objective world or that it is inaccessible. If we start
from that position, there is no point in going on.

Of course I know we are not at the end of history. Again, gee whiz,
why do you take things so literally? I am talking about this particular
moment, which is the last one SO FAR. Tomorrow there will be another.
And if one does not have some definitions and a law of contradiction, I
don't see how one proceeds to think. It is not a psychological thing
to say there are no married bachelors, anymore than that there are no
round squares. Even if the definition is psychological, which it isn't,
then once defined, some things are excluded from it. Otherwise, all
things would be true simultaneously--gods and no gods, true and false--in
which case we would live in an insane and absurd world and there would
be no point in going any further to try to sort it out.


"Philosophy is a matter of getting hold of a problem and holding on to it and being prepared to go on repeating oneself as one tries different formulations and solutions. This patient, relentless ability to stay with a problem is a mark of a philosopher, whereas a certain desire for novelty usually marks the artist." — Iris Murdoch

Dear David,

In 1981 I was on a huge Samuel Johnson kick. I must have read five books in a row. And I've always remembered what he said about conversations. He counseled Boswell that if he wanted to be sought out as a wonderful companion, but also respected as a serious thinker, he'd have to remember the difference between the social and the serious conversation.

In the social conversation one is expected to be cordial and witty; seriousness has nothing to do with it. But in the serious conversation one must be at pains to understand his interlocutor and then express his ideas with as much clarity and force as he can muster. I thought we were having the second sort of conversation. Being charged with nitpicking in such a conversation is tantamount to being charged with punching during a boxing match.

I understand that you may not have the time to continue this conversation; my worry was that we were starting to repeat ourselves to no avail, which becomes rapidly tedious. So if you want to discontinue the discussion, that's OK with me. I think we made our respective points.

If I should finish your book I will offer an Amazon review. If you don't see one in a week or so it means I've been sidetracked by another text. Despite some reservations, I still think you did a very good job on the book. I hope we stay in touch.


Honestly, no. Being charged with nitpicking in a serious conversation is tantamount to being charged with rabbit-punching in a boxing match. We are having a serious but hopefully still social and human conversation; there is no contradiction between being serious and being social/human, just as there is no contradiction between being rational and being emotional. That is an old Greek obsession, not a modern or important one.

So, since you chose to single out one reference to "heart" as a violation of my general rational commitment in some way, I consider my comments entirely justified. I am sorry if you took offense at them. If you have new points to raise, I am happy to discuss them. If we are going to re-visit the logic/psychologic issue, we have probably exhausted that for now. We don't see that issue the same way; we both agree it is important, but you think it is more important than I do.

Of course, our beliefs and knowledge are "psychological" in that they are in our head, and of course we construct both in ways that we must be very alert to. But the psychological aspect of either does not exhaust its material: there is the further issue of what it refers to "outside our heads," which is hopefully something. So, while I think it is crucial to analyze the role that our species and cultural psychology plays in the construction of our knowledge, in the end the real question is how that knowledge (or claims to it) relate to the real world -- how they count as "fact claims" rather than psychological avowals or testimony to internal states.

Anyhow, I look forward to you finishing the book. You will see that I
cover very different subjects later in the book, including the
limitations of reason as a "popular worldview." Talk to you then.


Let's recap. You invited me to read and review your book, a paean to clear thinking. The first 56 pages tell the reader, in so many words, "Be rational; use your head." But on page 57 you tell them to take your 12-step method "to heart." You've advised them to do something you just spent 56 pages attacking! So I comment on that. Do you say, "Interesting point," or "I should have rephrased that!"? No, you get annoyed -- or so it seems to me -- and say that you "don't have time" for such nitpicking; what's more, you defend that stance as "entirely justified" in a follow-up e-mail.

I see a problem here.

You've written a book to spring people from a prison you've never been in. As you point out on page 12: "Most atheists are not natural atheists but 'born-again' atheists -- people who have been through the conversion process and who had 'reconverted' or 'deconverted' back to their original atheism ..." or skepticism, as I would call it. "I can honestly say I don't know what that is like. ... Born-again atheists possess an intimate knowledge of religion from the inside. ... I am at once happy and sad that I have not had that profound deconversion process myself."

What you missed is this: One reason people fight to regain their natural skepticism is not just for the sake of "better" ideas; we do it because we develop an aversion to dogma and dogmatists. We've had it with arrogance, certainty and finality. Indeed, how do you know for certain what's nitpicking or crucial to a situation you've never been in? Instead of asking why I thought "take it to heart" was important, you just leapt to your own defense.

Your book is good, but it's not perfect. That means it deserves both praise and criticism. I have given it both, but now I'm unsure of what's going to count as a valid comment or be seen as nitpicking; so I will return to what I was doing before your first e-mail, a second reading of "The Future of Religion," by Zabala, Vattimo and Rorty, the guy you called "ridiculous."


Probably just as well.

One of the skills of critical thinking is the ability to distinguish between the important and the unimportant. Your comment about reason and heart is not wrong, it is just unimportant. Again, I take my "heart" remark (an incredibly trivial point for us to be spending so much time on) as metaphorical and poetic. I think even Rorty would approve of that. And even if it were literal, there is NO CONTRADICTION to being rational and heartful at the same time.

It is you and not me who is being dogmatic about that distinction. I think that in a whole human experience we need both. However, heart or emotion can never be a useful and trustworthy guide to factual truth. Only empirical experience, logical analysis, and dispassionate reason can do that. I love my wife, but that has no bearing whatsoever on any factual statements about her.

The desire to avoid dogmatism can become a phobia of certainty and finality. Some things are final, and it is not dogmatic to say so. There are no married bachelors, by certain definition; that is final. There are no round squares; that is final. Some things are more or less firm conclusions from the evidence and logic. The earth is round; that is pretty firm. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second; that is pretty firm. And there are no gods or supernatural spirits; that is pretty firm. New evidence or analysis can change our conclusions, but until that day comes, we can rest fairly comfortably in the trustworthiness of our conclusions. The issue is not so much apodictic certainty as trustworthiness, which you should appreciate as a psychologist.

No book is perfect, and I expect (and welcome) criticisms of it, and I expect that people's theoretical commitments will come shining through those criticisms, as yours does. I suggest, though, as a reader and reviewer, that you attempt to try to separate out the trivial from the significant and the literal from the figurative. That seems to me to be where most of our disagreement lies. Otherwise, we are after the same things. But your attribution of dogmatism to me for not being 100% "rational" (by which you apparently mean unemotional and inhumane, a false definition of rationality) is itself dogmatism of a much more serious kind. Humans are complex and contradictory, and we employ all sorts of argumentative forms -- from rational to rhetorical -- and the inability to see, appreciate, and distinguish them is a serious shortcoming.


This is reminding me more and more of Sunday School. Were you a deacon in a previous life? Thanks for reconnecting me to the roots of my skepticism! And that part about you welcoming criticism -- we've seen how well that works.

P.S. You don't have to explain you never had a previous life; it's just an expression. Also, I heard that information about the Earth being round; I think it was on NPR last week. They also reported that Rorty was a married bachelor and that god was a round square. Who says public radio is boring!


Perhaps I should have ended this e-mail exchange on that surreal NPR fantasy, but I will hazard one more message:

Since you were raised outside the church, you probably never sat through a Sunday School class, let alone hundreds of them, so maybe I should explain the deacon reference. The deacon, preacher, Sunday School teacher is the person who dictates to others what's important. They rule out comments and questions as wrong or "ridiculous." They keep any discussion right where they want it by explaining away or trivializing the concerns of others. They never get pulled off their turf. In general, they create either believers or skeptics.

You say you "welcome" criticism of your book. Maybe as long as you can say what counts as a valid comment; but when you get criticism you don't like, you give a lesson about what counts as important or not. This reminds me too much of all those controlled discussions, hence the deacon reference. This comes back to a point, which you glossed over, that you wrote a book to free people from a bind you've never been in. And I am saying your deaconesque attitude is perhaps a stumbling block to accomplishing that goal. That's an opinion you can ponder or trivialize or reject out of hand as ridiculous. But it may have a bearing on your success as a freethinker and freethought advocate.

I also want to say -- more to remind myself than you -- that too often conversations progress by people taking exception to each other; 21 messages go by and it seems like we're on opposite sides of the world. I have not lost sight that we're very close on most of this stuff. I think you wrote a good and interesting book, and I hope you end up selling more copies than Sam Harris. Speaking of Harris ...

Here's a good question you never asked: Why was I so easy on Sam Harris, giving him a five-star review, yet I am holding your feet to the fire over one phrase? And the answer is, "I'm not sure." Because we're corresponding on your book? Because I sensed, perhaps wrongly, the deacon attitude from the very first e-mail: "We need people like you spreading the word about reason, and we need THE RIGHT WORD to spread." (my emphasis) Because I thought you wanted me to hold you to a higher standard than the common reader? Because I am inconsistent in my approach to things? Because I got wrapped up in taking exception? All of the above? Who knows?

For as much as you and I think about things, we might not understand half of what we do. Here's an interesting sentence from "Gilead," which I started last night: "You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension." And here's a passage I want to remember and apply to myself: "A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever imagine. Above all, mind what you say."

Anyway, I was simply trying to explain why your book is less valuable to me than it might be to some others; and I was trying to make the point -- which, admittedly, is my pet project -- that we need less certainty in our views, not more, that if our skepticism doesn't rigorously extend to our own views, ideas, beliefs and practices then we're no better than the rankest fundamentalist because we've strangled the possibility for new thoughts. Maybe I should change my Web site motto: "Skepticism begins at home."

I love what Salman Rushdie said on the topic:

“The row over ‘The Satanic Verses’ was at bottom an argument over who should have control over the grand narrative, the Story of Islam, and that the power must belong equally to everyone. That even if my novel were incompetent, its attempt to retell the story would still be important. That if I’ve failed, others must succeed, because those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.”

I have enjoyed our e-mail exchange, not because I like trying to persuade people to adopt my views, but because I have clarified some of my own thoughts in trying to express them to you. That's very valuable and wonderfully enjoyable: To me there's nothing better. I have spent most of my free time for the past couple of weeks thinking about this exchange; and I have written reams of stuff I never sent; and I made two Web pages: It's been a treat.

You may know lots of people who enjoy deep discussions; I don't. You were a breath of fresh air for me. Thanks.


P.S. I would like to add one more point about your previous message, and maybe this is the point where we seem to spin off in different directions ... but not as far off as we might imagine.

You say, "Some things are final, and it is not dogmatic to say so." And you give some examples of things that are true by definition. Then you say there are other things of which we can have "pretty firm" conclusions and you mention the shape of the Earth and the speed of light.

So we both know that some things are true by definition but that definitions are man-made and CAN CHANGE and may only apply in certain limited contexts. So, to my mind, they are of limited value. You can't have a married bachelor by strict defintion, but we both know that strict definitions don't always map flawlessly onto reality. So it is only of limited use to insist on NO MARRIED BACHELORS. We might wonder if anything true by definition ever applies more than superficially to human beings.

We also both know that the empirical method allows for a high degree of trust in our observations and tests but that science does not give certainty, that our theories are still developing, and that all we get are "pretty firm" conclusions and theories, which allow us to fly through the heavens but not prove or disprove the existence of Heaven.

So now I come to my point: We both define ourselves as relativists. I think that my "sense" of cultural relativity takes away more certainty from me than your sense of it takes away from you. Therefore, I am, to some degree, telling you to be less empowered by the tenants of clear thinking, and you are telling me to be less bothered by the limits of knowledge. But neither of us knows if our method would work for the other person or if it's really correct as it is neither true by definition or up to the level of a science. So this conversation has helped me fine-tune my sense of a "relativity method." Your method of going forward revolves primarily around clear thinking; mine revolves primarily around doubt. So it works better for me than you to remember that "Skepticism begins at home."

So maybe I could add another motto to my growing collection: "Things that are final are not important, things that are important are not final." So yes, we can be dogmatic about trivialities, 2+2 = 4, unmarried bachelors, the rules of logic and so on. But that's not much to get excited about, in my view. Maybe that's our break-off point.

We both know there are many methods and that there's a certain genius -- or plain luck -- in matching method to person. Emerson said, "I must unfold my own thought." But he knew enough not to lay out a one-size-fits-all method.

Let's not be like two Lutherans arguing over which synod god likes best.


Until I read the very end of your message, I would have said "Yes" and
then added "I don't know what you want or expect from me." Since we
began discussing my book, you have only made two substantive comments
about it: (1) that you liked the "statistical" argument and (2) that you
did not like my reference to "heart." It is swell that you liked one
argument, but as you say, liking or not liking is irrelevant to truth and
to argument. And it is frivolous that you did not like the "heart"
reference, since it was an idiom, a figure of speech, and to criticize
those is trivial. Then, when I attempt to defend myself and point out the
tangential nature of your comment, you not only accuse me of dogmatism
and pedantry, but you insult me with comments about deacons and church
schools. Finally, you return over and over to two undefined points,
(anti) dogmatism and (pro) skepticism). In the face of that, what can I
personally respond with, and why would I want to?

Then, at the end, you give me a glimmer of hope in your willingness to
consider relativism and the deeper points of our positions. I think
you may still misunderstand my particular brand of relativism, which is
cultural relativism only and applies to non-factual matters like morals,
values, norms, standards, and indeed definitions. If you are an
epistemological or metaphysical relativist, you are welcome to it, but as you
say, such a position, while highly defensible and possibly even true,
is ultimately trivial: we cannot know "truth" with "certainty," but so
what? We can know what we can know, and we cannot know what we cannot
know. The important thing, perhaps, is to distinguish which is which
and to be explicit about how we arrive at such conclusions.

My commitment to reason, as you may or may not appreciate, is a matter
of METHOD. It seems to me that if we are going to try to sort out the
truth from the false from the relative, we must have some method to do
so. I am much less concerned about final conclusions than about
processes by which we arrive at conclusions. You may or may not share that
opinion. If you do not, it would be interesting to learn what method
you do practice, or what you practice instead of method?

Finally, I think if we are going to continue this exchange (and I have
mixed feelings about it), then I need you to define two of your terms
for me: dogmatism and skepticism. If by skepticism you mean rejecting
every claim as uncertain, then you can have that position, but we
probably have nothing more to say. In fact, you would find yourself in the
contradictory state of having to explain how you hold the claim that all
claims should be rejected. And if dogmatism means to you that all firm
positions are to be avoided, then you are welcome to it but we probably
have nothing more to say. As you said yourself, some things are firm,
even certain, and that is not bad or oppressive. The speed of light
really is, as best we can tell, 186,000 miles per second, but that is not
dogma, or at least if it is, it is apparently true and good dogma.
If you desire to communicate with me, and intend not to insult me or to
disparage my arguments, then I look forward to your reactions.


I wrote a couple of rambling responses today, but it might be better to focus on one thing, perhaps this passage: "My commitment to reason, as you may or may not appreciate, is a matter of METHOD. It seems to me that if we are going to try to sort out the truth from the false from the relative, we must have some method to do so."

I would say that since we are relative cultural-psychological beings, we are NOT going to sort out the true from the false and relative in any final, exhaustive way. To my understanding, that is what cultural relativity means. Maybe we already agree on this.

In "The Future of Religion" Rorty and Vattimo cite Nietzsche's quote, "The are no facts, only interpretations." They want him to qualify it, and so do I, but that's another e-mail. They are saying -- and I agree -- that factual matters are relative because every "fact" we know has come to us through humanly devised and culturally endorsed methods or tools. So I think Nietszche is saying that a fact is ALREADY a cultural product AS FAR AS WE KNOW. So his statement is not to be taken as fact.

Are there some facts that are NOT cultural products? Are there methods that allow us to reach past our time, place, personality and culture? Or can we be happy with better and better interpretations? Is that good enough?

I think the problem is that we can take people who don't think deeply and get them all jazzed up about religion; and we can take people who don't think deeply and empower them with reason and logic. And since they don't think deeply, each group believes it has the truth and makes strong claims. It's disturbing that strong claims and shallow understanding so often appear together. Perhaps to address this situation, Rorty and Vattimo promote weak thought. I think that's an unfortunate description, but it's essentially what has fascinated me for about 15 years. Weak thought uses cultural relativity to remind us of our intellectual limitations. It puts truth claims in a historical perspective that humbles the prideful mind.

Since I believe most people by nature develop absolute views, I prefer the corrosive effect of weak thought over any sort of strengthening program. And after all, is it possible to sort out the true from the false and relative, or is it more a matter of matching man and method for maximum inspiration and more rewarding interpretations?


My "method" for learning is reading, underlining, making notes, thinking, wondering, sending e-mails, writing essays, creating Web pages, talking, riding my bicycle, driving along in the car, doing chores, listening to stories from friends, taking a walk, watching a movie, getting 9 hours of sleep and then doing it all again. I start books I don't finish, write messages I don't send, create Web pages I delete and often find I enjoy designing news pages and making idle chatter at work.

That's a very human "method" as opposed to logic or the scientific process, but I am a weak-thought advocate not interested in making strong claims, so it works fine. I am simply following that which inspires me and gives me the sense that I am finding out what I need to know: I try to keep close to the sources of my enthusiasm; and it's worked quite well. So I suppose, at bottom, it is a very psychologically based method. And indeed, it is my belief, that most human beings are very involved in psychologically based projects but lose track of that and mistakenly make strong claims for certain ideas, methods or practices as true when they are really only touting personal preferences. Just look around and see how many people want to make definitive, strong statements, and you will see how "truth" plays into identity maintenance or self-esteem enhancement ... it's really something to watch.


Here's my definition of a dogmatist and skeptic. The dogmatist knows that he knows and that what he knows is true and good for others, too. The skeptic doesn't know that he knows, and he doesn't think his understanding is exhaustive. He firmly believes he can study and learn and come to know things better, but he doesn't worry much about the Truth.

The "knowing" of which I speak does not refer to our voluminous knowledge of the practical world. I know that I know how to design a metro cover, change my oil or write a sentence. I know lots of practical things, but they don't help me answer complex, open-ended questions.

I like Henry Miller's quote, "It should be borne in mind, of course, that there is an inevitable discrepancy between the truth of the matter and what one thinks, even about himself." Only I would change Miller's wording to, "a possible discrepancy," since disparity is not necessarily inevitable.

If one embraces Miller's statement it will have a weakening effect on any sort of strong claim he might make, for the complexity we see in the world around us -- all those problems and situations beyond the practical sphere -- are more than matched by the complexity in ourselves. This is the double whammy that leaves the skeptic skeptical: How can I know that I see the world correctly when I am somewhat invisible to myself and can't get these colored glasses pried from my face? While I can see the world good enough to get by in a rough-and-ready fashion, I am not interested in making strong claims; I see that as the glorification of personal preference. Ironically, "clear thinking" means taking account of psychological factors beyond actual reckoning. So the Miller quote throws us back on our own fallibility in ways I find refreshing.


I just read the portion of your book that deals with your definition of cultural relativism, and I think we are on the right track in regards the point where we differ on that topic: You seem to think that reason and science reach past relativity; I think our facts bear the marks of culture and are therefore still in the realm of the relative. My relativity is more radical than yours. You may think this misguided; I believe it's a sound position.

I would agree that reason and science are good tools for seeing past cultural relativism; no argument there. We need only look at technological advances and world culture to see how effective they are. They seem to be the best tools humanity has yet invented. But they are still cultural products employed by fallible humans. Even if we end up with a world culture, the tools of that culture will still be relative to us and our world as it exists in this place at that time.

Also, I have the concept of "fact" and "truth" in my head as ideals to strive for. To give an example: Let's say certain events transpired in the creation of the universe; and there are facts that relate to those events; and as we learn more and more, we come closer and closer to uncovering those ultimate facts. But even those facts -- if uncovered 10,000 years from now by an advanced society -- will bear the marks of their discovery, the history of science and culture, and some relativist will be around to point that out. So will we ever know that we know the facts once and for all, or will we go on refining our views as long as we exist?

If the answer is "yes, we'll know the facts" that means one day we'll escape our relativity AND KNOW IT; if the answer is "probably not" it means we may escape our relativity (or in some ways already have) but are not constituted mentally and emotionally to know beyond a doubt that we've done it.

My view today is this: I think the double nature of relativity -- personal and cultural -- makes highly unlikely that we can ever know that we know; not even the most powerful tools yet invented for discovery, science and logic, can give us the certainty we'd like to have. If certainty is not something we're likely to attain, then maybe we're better off learning to live without it.

I guess that's another plug for weak thought. And I would say that weak thought means strong relativism and strong thought means weak relativism. So perhaps there's some irony there.

By the way, just for fun I updated the artwork on my Theory of Relativity page:

28. JON WROTE: Wonderful job on the freethought and anthropology chapter. Bravo!

29. JON WROTE: Just sent a review to

30. DAVID RESPONDED: I see it. Thank you very much. I can really hear your voice in it, and I appreciate that you could find so many positive things to say. I could also
hear your protest about method and truth, and we
will have to discuss that some more. I did get your
messages about relativism and method, and your nice
comment about chapter 4. You must have finished the
rest of the book quite quickly.

At any rate, I will write you a more extensive response to your
other points soon, but this is spring break week where I
teach, so I am spending a lot less time online and a
lot more working on my next project, a book on the
anthropological study of religion. I'm sure it is
still two years away from seeing any light of day
(although I use it in manuscript form in my class),
but if you would be interested in seeing it when it
is a little further along, I would be happy to
provide it to you.

Again, thanks, and by whatever method you use, I'm
glad that we have arrived at roughly the same


You're very welcome. Glad to get back to the
discussion whenever you're ready. And I would enjoy
seeing the new book material whenever that's ready.


"Natural Atheism" has me thinking about where I acquired and how I nurture my doubt. I acquired it long ago from reading novels where, as Milan Kundera says in "The Art of the Novel," no one knows the truth but everyone has the right to be understood. I nurture my doubt on literature, philosophy, psychology, biography and film; I feed it on the first rule of sociology, that things are not always what they seem; and I nourish it on anthropology's contribution to the world, cultural relativity. But I NEVER nurture my doubt on logic; I couldn't tell you five logical fallacies if my life depended on it. To painstakingly judge someone's claims and ideas with logic is about as much fun as balancing a checkbook. I hope I employ clear thinking — I just don't want to think about it.

This makes me quite different from the author of "Natural Atheism," whose passion for logic and painstaking clear thought leaps out page after page. At times I feel the author is telling me my doubts don't count because they've not been nurtured properly. At other times he tells me my thoughts are second-rate because, "reason is the only type of thought that deserves to be called thought." This is not a claim that sits well with an intuitive doubter like myself, someone who has come to suspect, as Kundera would say, that most people desire a world where true and false can be clearly distinguished, and that religions, ideologies, methods and practices (like a strict application of reason) are founded on this desire because such people want to judge before they understand, and that this is ultimately a denial of freethought.

So as you can guess, there were many times I set the book aside "for good." But I always came back and read a bit more. And though I found more passion for reason, I also found words of wisdom, clever and memorable analogies, and lots of good ideas. Indeed, anyone interested in thought, belief, faith, religion, science or cultural relativism definitely should have this book on the shelf; the chapter on anthropology and freethought alone is worth the price of admission. If you're trying to decide between this book and "The End of Faith," get this one, no contest. If you're going to order a couple books, get this one and "The Future of Religion," by Rorty, Vattimo and Zabala, which will open a whole new avenue for doubt, and one that I prefer. And check out "The Art of the Novel," too; Kundera's insights are stunning. And don't overlook "Doubt: A History" by Jennifer Michael Hecht; it's a treasure.

If freethought is the goal, just remember that there are many ways to get there; and don't let anyone tell you your "method" is wrong — even if you're only a daydream doubter, like me.



“Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little
awakening. No doubt: no awakening.”

©jonfobes 2005