Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle[1]

Atheists cannot entertain deep intellectual thought exercises because they are close-minded.”[2] This is basically the charge I’ve been confronted with recently in several discussions. So I think I’ll take a moment to argue not only that it’s unwarranted, but that the opposite is indeed the case.

There is nothing about atheism that suggests one has to avoid thinking about such topics as gods. It just means that we’ve come to a conclusion about certain claims being made regarding a particular beings existence and (as in my case) the attributes typically ascribed to them. Take studying philosophy and science, their respective histories contain various concepts of God(s) dating back to the ancient Greeks. Many of the most influential early scientific works, such as Isaac Newton, contain mentions of a god(s)[3]. So to heed the words of Bertrand Russell, one must be willing to confront the absurd[4]. These are concepts that atheists have been exposed to and, more times than not, have thought about. Many have even accepted one concept of god or another at some point in their life. It’s not that atheists haven’t entertained such thoughts, it’s that most atheists have. We are not close-minded to new or extraordinary ideas and concepts, or even counter-intuitive ones. But that doesn’t mean that we should not separate the wheat from the chaff in the arena of ideas. Especially with respect to intellectual development and scientific progress. This is a necessary process for moving out of ignorance and not some dogmatic adherence to an ideology.

We see that given the dogmatic assumptions that typically accompany theism, it is actually the atheist that is open to new discoveries, and following the new evidence extrapolated from them, to where it leads. However, we recognize that there is no need to open the flood gates so wide as to lose our grounding in reality. We needn’t abandon our faculties to reason in this way. Nor do atheists need to shoehorn the whole of reality into a belief around one particular deity, as theists (of any particular faith) do. We needn’t abandon our intellectual honesty in this way. That is the epitome of the very thing the atheist is being charged with. I can think of little more close-minded than to start all scientific inquiries and philosophical investigations from the presupposition that one particular deity, with a particular set of attributes, conveniently the same one that the theist already believes in, is the creator and ruler of all. Also it just so happens that this particular deities divine instructions for living in this world comes from their particular holy book (again convenient).

It must be addressed that there is a bit of hypocrisy being exposed here within the theists camp. Does the Christian actively think that it is possible that his god doesn’t exist? Does the Muslim actively think that she may be wrong and Hinduism could be right? Are we supposed to allow for equal possibility for all god concepts to exist? To accept this nigh impossible. At least to anyone who has a basic understanding of the differences and similarities of the concepts of deities and the theologies that give them life.

What about just some vague, undefined “something”, as in, I assume, a powerful supreme intelligence that got it all started? Well, even with that, one must take on a lot of unjustifiable baggage. Assumptions about intelligence and consciousness become a problem as contemporary science and philosophy have a few things to say about the matter. Physics and cosmology have quite a bit to say about the universe and how it came about. Then there’s the problems of temporality and spatiality and the nature of what it means to “exist”. These matters are clearly not settled, but it shows that the conversations are moving further and further away from god talk. Could there be some as of yet undiscovered “something out there”? I don’t know because I don’t know what that “concept” (if we can allow the term) would entail. But I could conceive of there being something more in principle, whereas the believer cannot do so outside of their concept of god. And their god not existing is unthinkable, even in principle. It’s even seen as a failure or test of “faith” in many religious circles. But even if we accept such a concept as this unclarified and ambiguous “something”, is that what we are to call “god”? Will that satisfy the typical religious believer? I doubt it. I, on the other hand, like many atheists, am open to entertaining such ideas like of other forms of life elsewhere in the universe. I’m open to the possibility of a Multiverse. And I’m sure I’m not the only philosophile to give considerable thought to the “brain in a vat” problem. I can give serious consideration to moral dilemmas and truly look for meaning and purpose in life. I can think honestly about “gods”, without taking any of them on board or adopt any of their dogmas. I can entertain a great number of possibilities without being beholden to any.

And yet, all these things are restricted to the religious believer. Taboo even, to the more fundamentalist. Believing in a god essentially strips these subjects of thought of their value and relevance. Reducing them to a mere glimpse of a gods whim or fancy. The best religion can offer is the hope that their god will reveal a little bit more so our “feeble minds” can get a little closer to him. That doesn’t sound very open-minded to me at all. No, I say I am getting the full experience as science and secular philosophy fosters the kind of thinking that aids in fruitful “open-mindedness”. I’d argue that atheism is the best (and quite possibly only) position that can allow for the open-mindedness it takes to entertain these thought experiments and still maintain a grounding of rationality and commitment to intellectual honesty.[5]

– Rich


[1] from Aristotle’s Metaphysics

[2] This was pretty much the gist of several different conversations I have had recently. Within those conversations there were statements like “atheist weren’t exposed (or willing to be exposed) to the idea of theism” and how this led to our “ignorance”. And how atheists are supposedly dogmatically holding to materialism and unwilling to consider anything other than some narrow, strictly empirical view of reality. Never to venture too far from our “master”, science (as erroneously described as basically our line-of-sight personal observations). And it is because of this we are missing out on the full experience of thinking about reality and to engaging in such philosophical thought experiments. So I decided to combine these conversations and attempt to address them all at once.

[3] Regarding these early scientists, it must be stated that god(s) was not used in any important, explanatory way. The concept of a god typically served as a widget at the limits of their understanding. We see this happening over and over again with vastly different concepts throughout the ages. From Zeus and other gods of polytheism to the monotheistic God of Abraham.

[4] “Whoever wishes to become a philosopher must learn not to be frightened by absurdities.” The Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, p.24

[5] If one wants to object that rationality and intellectual honesty are somehow a hindrance to open-mindedness, then what good can being open-minded serve? It would seem that this version of “open-mindedness” would be detrimental. Like the saying goes, “so open-minded that your brain falls out”.

Further Up The Mountain: A Response to Robert Jastrow’s Infamous Quote


“At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”[1]

For those who haven’t encountered this quote before, it’s from American astronomer, physicist and cosmologist, Robert Jastrow. This statement has been championed by theists and has even found its way into high profile debates against atheists[2]. I probably wouldn’t have given much consideration to it had it not been thrown at me on more than one occasion. I assume it’s touted by theists so ardently because they think it carries significant weight simply because of his scientific credentials (and not on the scientific merit of the statement itself, proving once again that in apologetics, it’s not what is said but who is saying it). It would seem that Jastrow’s renown is all that is needed to confer the stamp of legitimacy, even if the statement itself doesn’t pass muster.

So what are we to make of this? Many of us will no doubt balk at such an irresponsible utterance, having heard such rhetoric before, but it deserves a retort if for nothing else than the widespread patronization of it by crass apologists.

In taking a closer look, right away we see there are problems. Not just with the statement itself, but also with the way theists present it. For example, it is often used as a point of argument by theists that Jastrow was a self-professed agnostic, but given the many interviews he’s given in various Christian forums, and by the tone of his books, like as evident by the statement on offer here, he’s pretty clearly of a theistic (or at least deistic) slant[3]. Funny how these same theists that prop up this tripe as an honest concession of a skeptic fail to take into consideration that an agnostic can in principle be a theist and continue on portraying him as if he were of the more common atheistic type.

Also, I could spend quite some time addressing other obvious issues that jump out to me. Like in the use of the word “faith” here or the way theology is expressed to take precedent over science (It is a bit surprising to hear such a dismissal if science coming from a scientist). These two issues alone could fill an entire book. But I’d rather focus on analyzing the symbolism of the analogy itself because there’s several problems contained within that I don’t think Jastrow anticipated. In my analysis, I noticed how this analogy could easily be used against theology instead of in support of it. And the finale is that it actually exposes what has been argued by my fraternity to be true of theology in the modern scientific climate all along, and that is that science has passed this antiquated ideology by and left it far behind. Allow me to illustrate what I mean, then offer a response to Jastrow’s analogy in kind.

First, it could be asked if they’re even on the same mountain as theology never answered any such questions about reality. But for the sake of argument, we’ll assume they are. If they did happen to reach any point of the mountain before the scientist, it wasn’t because they knew where they were going nor did they even know where they were. They were essentially wandering in the dark and lost[4]. But it’s even worse for the theologians because in their faith induced self assuredness, they stopped climbing the mountain (the scientist is greeted by the theologians who are just sitting there). Their religious faith gave them the illusion that they have reached the top. We see that the theologians here assume they have met the scientist at a pinnacle that, as science has shown us, hasn’t been reached. Their faith essentially serves as clouds obscuring their view to what lies beyond. And this is the obstacle religious faith creates.

So now that I laid a bit of foundation, allow me to offer (oh so humbly) my response to Jastrow’s careless analogy. This is what the logical conclusion to the story would be…

“As the scientist sat amongst the theologians, he found that he was not content with just faithfully sitting on the rocks. His commitment to reason and scientific inquiry compelled him to explore further and he discovered that the mountain continued past the clouds that had kept the theologians from seeing any higher. So he began climbing further up and out of the clouds to find the vast universe beginning to open up to him as he left the theologians below to gloat by their dwindling fire beneath the cover of the clouds. Left clouded by their faith, they arrogantly thought they had reached the highest peak and so they just sat… as they have for centuries.”[5]

– Rich Hess

[1] From God and the Astronomers, Robert Jastrow (1978). Jastrow’s allegory was about the Big Bang Theory (which many fundamentalist Christians still deny). This isn’t relevant to this particular discussion however and I only mention it here for accuracy. But for further research, I recommend looking up works from philosophers of science, such as Quintin Smith, and any number of contemporary physicists and cosmologists (Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Hawking, Victor Stenger, just to name a few) who explain the Big Bang and why the theologians are wrong.

[2] The example I had in mind was the debate between Frank Turek and Christopher Hitchens (23:44 mark)

[3] Now I’m not going to go out on a limb and speculate that he was a believer in God, but it’s enough to point out that there is a distinction in how we are to understand “agnosticism” here. It’s certainly safe to say that he was sympathetic to theology.

[4] After all, it’s theologians that teach as fact Noah’s Flood, the Genesis creation myth, talking animals, etc. Even if they were to stumble onto some observation that turned out to be factual (or even partially factual), we can hardly credit their “methods” of getting there.

[5] The “clouds” here represent the theologians faith. In thinking they had all the answers they were looking for as prescribed by their religious dictates, they were ignorant of the possibility of there being anything beyond. And thus they have stopped searching. Unlike religion, in science, the climb is never ended.